‘I LIVED 449DAYS UP A TREE’
Conservationist Miranda Gibson spent almost 14 months – including two Christmases and a birthday – up a tree to protect endangered forests from loggers. Shiva Kumar Thekkepat reports
It’s a glorious morning, the sun’s first rays playing hide-and-seek behind the thick foliage of the eucalyptus tree, the mist sending up plumes of smoke that reminded Miranda Gibson of her mother’s sizzling saucepan as she used to sleepily stumble her way into the kitchen for breakfast as a child. Now, she stretches and takes a deep breath of the fresh mountain air, before jumping up to do 30 minutes on her stepper. The 32-year-old works up a light sweat before breaking off for a cup of strong coffee.
As she stands on the edge of the platform, looking out over kilometres of verdant greenery, one would assume that Miranda’s on holiday. But she’s actually 60 metres above the ground, on a ledge erected around the trunk of a 400-year-old giant eucalyptus tree in the southern forests of South West Tasmania, Australia.
This has been her home for more than a year as she literally stands guard to protect the endangered virgin rainforests. Teacher Miranda climbed up the tree on December 14, 2011, and refused to come down until she was forced to, 449 days later, due to a raging bush fire that threatened the area. When she did climb down the tree she was hailed a heroine for having secured the forests she so desperately wanted to protect.
Why would a middle school teacher from Queensland, Australia, put her career on hold, even put herself in imminent danger, for what was seen as a lost cause even among environmentalists? The answer lies in Miranda’s deep and abiding love of nature. She is the spokesperson for Australian grass-roots forest advocacy group Still Wild Still Threatened, is involved in the monitoring of native wildlife and endangered species in threatened forests and is the co-author of the book Flora and Fauna Guide to the Upper Florentine Valley.
So, when Miranda took the decision to climb a tree to stop the logging of endangered forests in Styx Valley, she wasn’t being impulsive. “The decision is something I thought through for
‘I wanted to make sure people knew the forests were being destroyed. I wanted to protect them’
some time before I attempted it,” she says. “I spent a few months getting mentally prepared, talking to experts and people who had done this kind of thing as it takes an emotional toll, as well as organising things, such as a base team to check up on me and get me things like food, clothes and everyday requirements to make sure it would go smoothly. It was a big commitment and something I only wanted to do if I knew I was prepared.”
For Miranda, it was a last-ditch effort to save the forests that have been described as the ‘biggest untouched tracts of temperate rainforest in the southern hemisphere’. “I went up the tree because that area of forest was under threat from logging,” she says. “The area was originally meant to be included in the conservation agreement that was to be in place in August 2012. But unfortunately that never happened.”
Ta Ann, a Malaysian logging company, logged the area to meet the international demand for wood, which meant that a lot of forest areas that were supposed to be protected are still under threat and being logged. Ta Ann produces veneer from logs taken from the forests, which is then sold overseas, most notably to Japan, where it is sold as flooring. Since the logs that are used are accredited by PEFC, an independent certification system that promotes sustainable forestry, Ta Ann markets its veneer flooring as being eco-friendly, something that environmentalists such as Miranda fiercely dispute.
“Four months before I went up the tree the Australian and Tasmanian Governments had promised a conservation agreement over 430,000 hectares of forest, including the site where the tree is,” says Miranda. “It was never put in place, and so when I found out that this area was due to be logged, I wanted to do something to make sure that people knew that Tasmania’s forests – that had been verified to be of world heritage and national heritage significance – were being destroyed. I wanted to protect them. My intention was to stay up until there was protection for these forests.”
There were reasons for choosing the particular tree. “It was chosen because of its location,” says Miranda. “My original plan for the tree-sit was that if the forest around me was logged, I would record that on film and show it on the internet so the world would be able to see the reality of the destruction. For this reason I chose a tree that was high on the ridge and overlooking the rest of the area that was due to be logged. The platform was set 60 metres high on the tree.”
She called it the Observer Tree. “I wanted to show people all around the world what is happening here,” she says. “I spoke to other people in my group [Still Wild Still Threatened] about it, because I knew that this wasn’t something I could achieve on my own. It took a whole team of people to support me. I couldn’t have done this without them.”
Miranda got to work immediately, setting up a blog – The Observer Tree – and updating it daily, uploading photographs and videos she shot of activities in the area on a warfooting. The world media caught on immediately, and soon Miranda was giving interviews around the world through Skype and email. She was a cause célèbre in no time, her blog attracting 50,000 unique views. The loggers started feeling the heat too.
Conservationists placed hidden cameras in the forest below, capturing footage of a mother Tasmanian devil, the day before logging began. This iconic Australian species is listed as endangered in both federal and state legislation. “Luckily, the media spotlight from my action had the loggers packing up and leaving after a week, giving these young devils a chance of survival,” says Miranda. But because there was no positive action from the Australian
government to permanently stop the logging, Miranda continued her tree-sit.
“I was prepared for it,” she says. “I had the basic things to live up there and communicate with the world – a solar panel to produce electricity, a small laptop, phone, video camera, a sleeping bag and sleeping mat. I also took boxes of food and lots of warm clothing. As time went on my team sent up things to make my life more comfortable, such as a small step machine that could be used for exercise, and a small foldout chair and table to make working on the computer easier. It began to feel more and more like home the longer I was up there.”
But her home was only meant to be temporary, for what was initially thought of as a few-weeks-long vigil. The platform was three metres wide, with a tarpaulin sheet above to protect her from the elements. There were times when it snowed and when she was buffeted by hail stones. But it only made her even more determined to stay put. “I didn’t think of coming down even when I was wet and shivering up there,” she says. “I just wrapped up in more clothes and sought solace in the books I’d taken up, or worked on my answers to the questions [about the protest] from various newspapers across the world. There was always something to take my mind off the discomfort.”
Miranda also made sure to keep herself active and healthy. “I spent time exercising up there, doing stretches and other exercises,” she says. “I also practiced walking on the step machine. I made sure I ate healthy food and stayed as healthy as possible.” Luckily, she never fell seriously ill, although she did suffer occasional colds and fevers.
However, the loneliness was stark. “One of the hardest things about being up there was definitely the isolation and loneliness,” says Miranda. “Sometimes I really appreciated the unique experience of being by myself in the forest. At other times I really missed my friends and family and craved that faceto-face time with people. I was always looking forward to getting down and spending time with them.”
But though the protest was taking longer than she’d hoped, with the government backtracking on protecting the forests, Miranda never contemplated giving up. “That’s not in my nature,” she laughs.
Over the months she endured high wind, snow, hail and other extreme conditions. It was a tough winter when she started her tree vigil in 2011, and even more so in 2012 when she spent Christmas and New Year up there. And the weather wasn’t the only challenge.
“Living on a three-metre platform suspended in the treetops made every daily task that I once took for granted very difficult,” says Miranda. “No turning on the tap for hot water or going to the shops if you run out of milk! I had to bathe in a small bucket. And I hauled up everything I needed on a long rope, relying on support from the community for donations of food and supplies.”
Though the Australian government refused to budge, international media
coverage of her tree-sit ensured that support flooded in, locally as well as internationally. Many people visited the base of the tree to shout up their thanks. “Their support was overwhelmingly inspirational,” says Miranda. “It helped me get through what was the hardest part of this experience – the loneliness of being separated from my loved ones.”
Some Australian celebrities took up her cause. For the one-year anniversary of her tree-sit, Miranda was thanked by musicians Nick Cave, John Butler and Blue King Brown, as well as former Greens leader Bob Brown, and an American activist, Julia Butterfly Hill. “Having face-to-face interactions was often a welcome relief from the isolation,” says Miranda. “I had friends and family climb the tree to visit me. When my mum, Glenys, came to stay up in the tree for a few days, it was incredible because she had never done anything like that before. My dad, Dave, came up to visit me another time and so did my sister Rhiannon.
“It was great for them all to not only see me again, but also experience the forest from that perspective.”
The upside was the chance to experience and observe nature from within. “It was a remarkable experience,” she says. “Being up there for over a year meant that I saw all four seasons come and go. I was able to see the trees flowering in summer and covered in snow in winter. I saw amazing bird life, including endangered wedge-tailed eagles. And just the experience of getting to know the forest so well, being immersed in it day in and day out, was truly incredible.”
As time went on and there appeared to be no positive move from the Australian government, Miranda dug her heels in for the long haul. “It was apparent that the end (of my treesit) was not in sight,” says Miranda. “But having come so far I never once thought of giving up.”
Eventually, the gathering global momentum behind the campaign, the support of the World Heritage Committee and also the political influence of Federal Greens Party, all helped to put pressure on the Australian government, who eventually made a nomination for World Heritage status for the forests in February last year.
Miranda’s intention was to stay until there was full protection for these forests. Unfortunately, a looming threat of being engulfed in a bush fire forced her to climb down on March 7 last year. “Although a bush fire burning within 1.5km from my tree eventually forced me to evacuate, my heart has not really left the treetops,” she says. “Every day in my mind I am still watching over that forest, just as I had done for the 449 days atop the tree. Every day a thought hung over me like a cloud – the knowledge that the loggers might return and begin clearfelling once more.”
At that point Miranda’s selfless act had made many gains. A couple of months later, in June last year, the World Heritage Committee made a unanimous decision to officially list 170,00 hectares, which included her Observer Tree, as a world heritage site. This was a huge success for the campaign. “Not only my action, but two decades worth of forest actions and
‘When my mum, Glenys, came to stay up in the tree with me for a few days, it was incredible’
community campaigns had gone into achieving this outcome,” says Miranda.
However, less than a year later, they were under threat once more. “The recently elected government in Australia made a nomination to the World Heritage Committee to have 74,000 hectares removed from the list and opened up again for logging,” says Miranda. But success was on the environmentalists’ side. The United Nations’ World Heritage Committee, meeting in Doha on June 24, took just 10 minutes to reject the government’s application to reverse protection for 74,000 hectares. This was a result of coordinated action by Miranda and her colleagues.
“In the lead-up to the meeting, we coordinated a 48-hour global action for World Heritage,” says Miranda. “There were hundreds of events and actions happening around Australia and across 16 countries internationally to defend our World Heritage sites. And it has worked!”
In spite of having to abandon her treetop vigil before the movement succeeded fully, Miranda believes her action was a success. “It made an important contribution to the campaign to protect these forests,” she says. “Even though we still need to keep fighting to make sure that protection is not taken away, it is still a significant achievement. In addition, I believe the international attention to this issue and the way in which my action inspired people to not only stand up for the forests, but to take action in their own lives and have the courage to stand up for what they believe in, I think is the true success of my tree-sit.”
She hopes her action will be a catalyst, inspiring others to say no to wood products that come from unsustainable forestry practices.
However, it’s not back to the classrooms as yet for her. “I see myself continuing to fight for the future of the forests. They are irreplaceable and we cannot afford to lose any more of the remaining areas of high-conservationvalue forests. I will keep on fighting until our forests are protected and Tasmania sees an end to industrial-scale logging of our native forests.”
Maybe that would mean tree-sitting again, or taking action in other ways. “If I thought that it would achieve the outcomes we need, I would definitely consider doing it again,” says Miranda. “However, I also think that it is good to be creative and think of new ideas and new ways to take action. So maybe I will do something different next time. One thing is for certain though, I will continue to stand up for these forests.”
Teacher Miranda put her life on hold to try to save the rainforests
Miranda used the media spotlight to help her cause
Home sweet home, 60 metres above the ground
A team of people supported Miranda in her campaign
The tree was chosen because of its great vantage point
Mum Glenys was a welcome guest
Apart from an occasional cold, Miranda managed to stay healthy
Fellow activists greet Miranda as she returns to terra firma