A few weeks ago I was thrilled to be part of an expedition into the Tarkine rainforest of Tasmania organised by Getup! as part of their campaign to protect this great wilderness area. Getup! had selected a diverse group of participants from their large membership based on responses to a passionate call to action for the Tarkine.
Getup! is an independent, grass-roots community advocacy organisation which aims to build a more progressive Australia by giving everyday Australians the opportunity to get involved and hold politicians accountable on important issues. They have some 600,000 members. Like Doctors for the Environment Australia, Getup! is not aligned with any political party and is a not-for-profit relying on donations from their members or the public instead of Government or political parties.
Getup! are currently pressuring Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke to provide protection for the Tarkine in the form of National Heritage Area status with the ultimate aim of National Park protection and World Heritage nomination. The Tarkine area meets all the cultural and environmental criteria for World Heritage status. As Tony Burke hasn’t yet placed foot in the Tarkine Getup! are challenging him to come down into the rainforest as our group of passionate Getup! members have to see what is truly at stake if mining plans are realised.
The Tarkine area is in the north west of Tasmania and extends from the Arthur River in the north to the Pieman River in the south and is bounded by the Murchison Highway in the east. It runs from temperate rainforest through open woodland and buttongrass plains to the west coast and is traversed by wild, undammed rivers.
The Tarkine’s rainforest is a relic from Gondwana, the supercontinent comprised of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica present some 65 million years ago before the continents separated and Australia moved north. This means that the Tarkine rainforest contains ancient trees like myrtle beech and sassafras and huge Man Tree ferns- some are estimated to be over 400 years old. Stepping into this forest is like stepping into a time capsule from the time of dinosaurs.
The Tarkine rainforest is the largest temperate rainforest in the Southern Hemisphere and globally the only larger such forest is in Alaska. Consequently, it has enormous international significance.
This area holds great cultural value for all Australians as it was one of the last places in Tasmania where aboriginal people lived their traditional life. The Tarkineers- one of the 3 bands of Aboriginal people from this area- were taken from the land in the mid 1830’s having lived there sustainably for some 40,000 years. Indigenous people of the Tarkine were tall and strong due to the plentiful supply of food along the coast and in the nearby woodlands. Significant cultural sites include enormous middens where generations of these first Australians would eat seafood together.
The Tarkine is home to many threatened and endangered species including the Tasmanian devil, a freshwater crayfish which grows to an incredible 1m in length and a tiny burrowing crayfish which builds mud castles on the forest floor.
Apart from these conservation and cultural values the Tarkine is of important health and wellbeing value. We all know of the health threat facing us in the form of climate change and forests like those in the Tarkine act as massive carbon sinks, drawing down greenhouse gases and storing carbon in their trees and soils. Forests purify our water and air and protect biodiversity which is a natural buffer for us as we face climate threats. As many as 1/3 of all medicines have come from forests and there may be many more therapies to be found in these diverse living systems.
There is a growing body of evidence that spending time immersed in nature of high wilderness value is good for us both physically and mentally. Being active in these places bushwalking, kayaking or swimming protects us from the many diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle. As a GP I spend much of my day treating patients suffering from the consequences of too much time sitting inside looking at a screen. These health problems aren’t all physical though and depression and anxiety are a huge modern issue too. Researchers have found that time in nature elevates mood, reduces anxiety and enhances focus: that is, it makes people happier and less stressed.
On this visit to the Tarkine I was accompanied by my son, Patrick, who is 12 and not particularly forthcoming on how he’s feeling. I wondered how he felt being surrounded by the greens of the forest, breathing in the clean air and listening only to birds and the chatter of our companions. He said he felt he could breathe more easily which made sense as he suffers from a dust mite allergy but it was what he didn’t say which struck me the most. From the moment we entered the canopy of the forest he began to whistle as he walked and his whole being seemed more relaxed. He stooped to look at the jewel beetles nestled in the moss and climbed into the enormous hole in a large tree to check out its inhabitants.
I too felt different, like all of my senses were being stimulated. Sounds of rushing water near the river, gentle drips of mist or the soft pattering of beech leaves as landing on the forest floor provided soothing white noise. Underfoot the spongy carpet of roots were a gentle surface for my bare feet- no sharp prickles here. The air was moist and pungent with the scent of the forest and my eyes found green everywhere in hundreds of different hues and textures. Patterns upon patterns of living things with metallic jewel beetles tucked in moss cushions and the underside of enormous fallen trees a metropolis of spider webs. I truly understood the term ‘forest bathing’- I was bathed in green, restored and revitalised, cleansed by wilderness.
We need to protect this biodiverse place from today’s threat of mining. There are 56 exploration licences with 4 current proposals for open cut mines. One large open cut mine, the Savage River mine, is already in the Tarkine and it pollutes the river adjacent to it- the toxins spread from the mine to other parts of the forest through the waterways. Proponents of new mines argue for jobs and income but these jobs will be short lived, mostly less than 20 years. In contrast, a future in eco-tourism has the potential to create 1200 jobs and generate $60 million annually by 2020. These are long term jobs which support local communities and provide for a healthy sustainable future.
Doctors for the Environment Australia supports Getup!’s campaign to save the Tarkine and calls on Minister Burke to act now and protect this area from the threat of mining for its health, environmental and cultural values.
Follow the link for more information on how you can contribute to Getup!’s Tarkine campaign
Dr Dimity Williams is a General Practitioner working in inner Melbourne who is currently on The DEA National and Victorian Committees.