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45 Years of Acting Up: Friends of the Earth the early years

Friends of the Earth podcast history series made in collaboration with 3CR 855 AM community radio show Acting Up!    Monday 2.00pm.  Ratbags, peaceniks and agents of change, resistance radio that explores the movements that made us. 

45 years of Acting Up!  Friends of the Earth the early years audio episode

Listen up mp3
Presenters: Megan Williams and Em Gayfer.
Guests: Richard Nankin, Neil Barrett, Pat Jessen, and Bro Sheffield-Brotherton.

Friends of the Earth members 70s

It’s back to the 1970s we go to where it all began to revisit the early years of Friends of the Earth in Australia.  Founded by radical activists concerned with ecological and social justice, Friends of the Earth and allied groups mobilised around the issues of Aboriginal land rights, anti-nuclear and uranium mining, whaling, protecting the Antarctic and leaded petrol.  In this episode we’re joined by guests involved in the first national Friends of the Earth meeting held on French Island, the Ride Against Uranium, our first petition and database, and lobbying and protesting.  Keep reading to discover the wild history of our coordinated campaign wins, and find out how to join Friends of the Earth today.

Key moments in Friends of the Earth early years

1972 The first Friends of the Earth group in Australia was formed at Adelaide Uni, one of a number of organisations that grew out of a group called Social Action.  The first Australian FOE group campaigned on issues including waste, pollution, Coca Cola and French nuclear tests in the Pacific. 

1973 Friends of the Earth Melbourne was established based on broad social and ecological movements that were forming across Australia and around the world.

1974 Friends of the Earth Australia was founded at a meeting on French Island in Westernport Bay, Victoria, on the site of a proposed nuclear reactor which was later defeated.  FOE Australia identified itself as a radical ecological group recognising the need to move to sustainable and equitable social systems to protect people and the environment.  FOE activists lobbied governments and fought for change, building on a growing public awareness of sustainable ecology, the Aboriginal land rights movement, the women’s movement, and the trade union led Green Bans movement. 

FOE represented at the Nuclear-free Pacific Treaty conference in Fiji.  FOE Melbourne supports an Australian vessel sailing to Moruroa to protest Pacific nuclear testing.  Activist Rolf Heimann's Tahiti ketch sailed from St Kilda pier after a speech by Jim Cairns, to the sounds of a jazz band. FOE Melbourne raises money and publishes ‘Greenpeace Pacific Bulletins’ to support the voyage.  Over the years, the bulletins morph into FOE’s national magazine Chain Reaction, still in print today. 

FOE Melbourne protests save Baw Baw frogs from a proposed mountain ski run.

FOE releases a video of BHP dumping steel at sea attracting national media coverage.

FOE Adelaide negotiates with the Australia Party and the Plumbers and Gasfitters Union to establish the Campaign Against Nuclear Energy. 

1975 The Campaign Against Nuclear Energy (CANE) is officially launched.

FOE is involved in mass demonstrations to oppose uranium mining and to protect the moratorium on uranium mines.

FOE Melbourne’s first Food Co-operative and bookshop is established.  

FOE groups are set up in Queensland, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, the Illawarra, NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia.  Local autonomous groups formed the cornerstone of the National Federation of FOE in collaborative campaigning on anti-whaling, no lead petrol, container deposit schemes, Indigenous land rights and mining resistance.

FOE Melbourne holds a lavatory sit-in at Melbourne Airport to protest the supersonic, luxury Concorde aircraft. 

FOE organises a Ride Against Uranium, 250 people ride from Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide to Canberra where Bill Liechacz from FOE NSW burns the coffin of the "ALP Conscience" with a flame kindled by his solar cooker.

FOE anti-uranium activists track the Federal government's Ranger Uranium Inquiry (aka the Fox inquiry) around the country, travelling by train and hitch-hiking. The Age newspaper reports that FOE’s 300-page submission to the Fox inquiry, "… mostly shaped the major qualms expressed by the Fox report" and that, "… at the moment, FOE could rightly claim to be the most potent environmental group in the country".

FOE Sydney campaigns against massive inner-city high-rise developments, in support of trade union Green Bans. Robert Tickner, the convenor of FOE's urban campaign, later becomes the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

FOE Melbourne campaigns on the problem of lead in petrol. The oil industry fights back, but with strong community education and lobbying, FOE and allies win the campaign by the mid-1980s instituting lead-free petrol across Australia.

Mid-1970s Friends of the Earth campaigns extensively to protect Antarctica, and publishes 'Antarctica: World Law and the Last Wilderness'.  Converging with allied groups, FOE forms the Antarctica and Southern Oceans Coalition, campaigning in the public realm in Australia and through international meetings, leading to the Madrid Protocol banning mining in Antarctica for at least 50 years. 

1976 400 riders participate in a ride against uranium mining building FOE’s profile to such an extent that, in the words of Chain Reaction editor Richard Nankin, "we now work in overcrowded offices, with people coming and going at all hours, the phones always ringing madly".

FOE establishes the Atom-Free Embassy outside the Australian Atomic Energy Commission at Lucas Heights, NSW.  A gun-shot is fired over the Embassy one night.  A tepee is set up at the Embassy functioning as the local branch of the FOE Leak Bureau.  Vege and herb gardens are established, while lock-on’s and truck blockades ensue.

The Age newspaper describes the FOE Melbourne office as a "barely furnished terrace house in Carlton” noting that FOE  “... has so far gained support of not just the left wing unions but professional organisations and church groups ...".

FOE Sydney hosts a speaking tour by Dale Bridenbaugh, an engineer with General Electric USA, on GE's nuclear safety problems with the boiling water reactor design. Thirty-five years later, those design flaws are exposed in the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

FOE’s Chain Reaction magazine puts out a call via the 'Leak Bureau' for corporate and government whistle-blowers to provide information.  A whistle-blower emerges from Mary Kathleen Uranium Mining leaking documents to FOE that reveal the existence of a global uranium cartel, leading to protracted international scandals and fines totalling hundreds of millions of dollars.

1977 National bike ride protests against uranium mining from Melbourne to Canberra.

FOE publishes RED LIGHT FOR YELLOW CAKE selling 30,000 copies, and holds anti-nuclear film nights.  200,000 protest to stop uranium mining and march against nuclear power.

FOE does extensive work on renewable energy options for Australia including local events showcasing energy efficient light bulbs.

FOE is involved in actions preventing the loading and shipping of uranium from wharfs in Sydney and Melbourne.  FOE magazine Chain Reaction publishes an apology for its lateness stating, "FOE absenteeism reached 100% during the Swanston Dock actions where mounted police led a charge over the top of protesters sitting on a wharf beside a ship loaded with Australian uranium”. Commenting on the heavy-handed tactics of police at the protest, Chief Police Commissioner Miller said, “I'd use elephants if I had them.”

In Port Pirie, 200 kms north of Adelaide, a group of concerned people get together to campaign on the radiation risks from the Port Pirie Uranium Treatment Complex and set up a FOE South Australia group.

Almost all Australian FOE groups are working on anti-nuclear and no whaling issues.

FOE Melbourne mobilizes action around the International Whaling Commission in Canberra, collaborating with FOE Canberra and FOE International.  Anti-whaling activists block the corridor of the motel with a giant inflatable Willie the Whale, trapping Japanese delegates in their rooms. Police slash Willie attracting global publicity.

Community activists supported by FOE Melbourne set up barricades on Alexandra Parade, Collingwood to stop the construction of the F19, later renamed the Eastern freeway, raising community support, and many protesters are arrested.  The F19 protests hit the headlines and force the issue of better transport planning on to government agendas bolstering future campaigns.

1978 Activist Rolf Heimann is gaoled for protesting the docking of a nuclear submarine.  Heimann’s book, 'Knocking on Heaven's Door', published by FOE, is an activist travelogue opposing nuclear testing in the Pacific, with a foreword by “our old friend Spike Milligan”. 

A Women’s edition of Chain Reaction magazine publishes articles on sexism, women at work, and feminism. 

FOE organises non-violent, direct actions based on consensus decision making inspired by the women’s movement and gay rights activists.

FOE leaks draft Bills to Amend the Atomic Energy Act. The Act allows up to 20 years prison for releasing 'restricted information'.

Indigenous land rights and uranium mine protests by traditional land owners, supported by FOE and trade union activists continue to call for ALP no new mines policy to stand. 

National action on anti-uranium mining Jabiluka blockades supported by FOE Brisbane activists.  Era of resisting LNP Premier Joh Bejelke-Petersen’s Queensland police state government and fighting for the right to protest.  Public awareness campaigns around the nuclear fuel cycle, and dock blockades supported by trade unions.  FOE Brisbane campaigns around climate justice, food sovereignty and community agriculture, and military disarmament.

FOE is among the few official parties invited to the Inquiry into Whales and Whaling. Following the announcement that the last whaling station at Albany, WA is to close, FOE campaigns for a whale sanctuary in Australian territorial waters, a ban on the import of whale products, and for Australia to take a proactive role in international forums to secure global protection for all species of whale from commercial operations.  Due to intense campaigning by FOE and many other environmental groups, the Federal government places a total ban on whaling in Australian waters.

1979 Chain Reaction magazine reports that Joh Bjelke-Peterson supports nuclear power, having previously advocated the use of nuclear weapons as, “peaceful nuclear explosives” to halt the progress of the Crown of Thorns Starfish on the Great Barrier Reef.

By 1979, there are 46 Friends of the Earth groups established throughout Australia.

2020 Friends of the Earth Melbourne: mobilise - resist – transform
Friends of the Earth continues to campaign on environmental and social justice issues including climate and energy justice, anti-nuclear, land and water, food and technology, economics for earth and indigenous land rights, across Australia and the world.

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