The Friends of the Earth Melbourne campaign coordinating and organising team took a trip together for a few days last week, to the country of the Brataualung clan of the Gunaikurnai people in South Gippsland, staying in cosy quarters thanks to a kind and generous volunteer FoE member.
We took some time to reconnect after the last years of working together via Zoom, and to talk strategy and theory of change, share skills and knowledge, and visit some community members out in Gippsland (with a few Zoom meetings thrown in for good measure).
The magic of learning from each other and sharing the collective wisdom enriched us, as we spent time together talking about all of our wide ranging work, and nutting out all the ingredients of success in our multifaceted community-driven work, between super tasty and nourishing campaigner-cooked meals.
Our first excursion for the trip took us to meet Mel, an animal rescue carer, vet nurse and dedicated forests volunteer who is a member of the Friends of Alberton West State Forest and also the secretary of the recently formed Victorian Forests Alliance.
Mel took us up to the top of a hill with views out to sea where we imagined on a clear day seeing majestic Star of the South offshore wind turbines turning.
There we met with local farmer Kevin, who told us the important view was past the trees in the other direction - the Binginwarri “bowl” valley, which means empty belly or hungry stomach in the local language. This is where Kevin and other committed locals have spent over two decades caring for the land, protecting the forested areas, clearing weeds such as blackberries which inhibit the movement of koala and other animals, and revegetating to create connected wildlife corridors now utilised by many birds - including powerful owls, koalas and other animals, and helping reduce runoff by planting out gullies. This work has been done over a long period by landholders and others, through various projects including Landcare, and the Jack and Albert River Restoration (JARR) project.
Kevin shared with us the important survey work that has been done by ecologists, assisted by citizen scientists. This work has shown the immense benefit of the revegetation work done over so many years, as well as the importance of protecting remaining untouched forest that preserves the ecology of the local EVCs - including Gippsland Plains Warm Temperate Rainforest and Shrubby Foothill Forest.
Local community members and visitors have had the opportunity to learn about the rich diversity of flora and fauna that have made their homes in this protected and newly restored habitat as they discover animals and plants including rare orchids while skilling up in surveying methodologies.
The local fishermen have also reported the benefit of this work in reducing nutrient overload downstream and into Corner Inlet, preventing fingerling die off and enabling the sea grasses to flourish. What a beautiful ecosystem of local humans sharing and working together alongside the animals and plants they are protecting and ecosystems they are restoring.
Kevin also shared with us the complexity of the offset industry and how carefully that kind of thing needs to be managed in order to preserve these ecosystems of such high actual value beyond their basic and wasteful use as a “resource”. He also shared with us his experience of living and working on the land over decades and the climate changes he and his family have observed in the rainfall and wind patterns, resulting in drier ground and less understory in some areas.
Next Mel took us, via a sadly destructed recent logging coupe, to her own most treasured patch of forest - a recently identified area of warm temperate forest which contains a unique mix of species. How precious. Luckily unloading all the campaigners meant our additional car made it back out via the roller coaster track as our second car followed Mel’s four wheel drive!
What a beautiful adventure - thanks Mel and Kev!
Next day after a hearty shakshuka breakfast, some morning meetings, some reading up on the recently released koala management plan, and other computer work, we took another excursion to the local Bald Hills Wind Farm. There we met another local farmer Lindsay - the host of 12 of the total 52 turbines that have been operating since 2015, meeting the electricity requirements of over 62,000 homes.
We could see Lindsay’s steady strength and courage as he regaled us with tales of the challenges he faced in the initial days with the few loud and aggressive opponents scaring the community into quiet support only shared with him in private. Sad to hear how a few loud voices can try to derail projects that have such benefit for the local and wider community, lashing out and hurting those brave enough to stand strong in the firing line along the way. Thank goodness for community solidarity to get people through these times and a good reminder of the importance of supporting each other as we navigate our journey through these times of great change. Now that the project is complete, after working through various issues of local and wider politics along the way, Lindsay says the community support for the project is great and it has been a real success evidenced by the facts of the actual experience, despite the spreading of some wild and out-there theories by the vocal anti-wind minority that the media did not rise to debunk with the contrary evidence.
Lindsay educated us on wind regimes and how wind travels in layers, making hilly sites prime for concentrated wind harvesting, while birds will travel routes that hug their way around hills rather than heading straight over. He also told us of his positive experience of living on the wind farm, operational for the last 7 years and in construction 3 before that, and how it has benefitted both his farm and also the environment by enabling changes in his farm management, all the while adding more renewable energy into the grid. What a win-win situation!
We went up the hill to catch the breeze and strike a pose and were able to observe the nearest turbine responding to a change in wind direction, slowing to a stop then swivelling before picking up pace once again. Over on the next hill we could see a crew at work undertaking regular maintenance on a more distant turbine - fascinating work!
While we were there Lindsay also shared with us some of the changes to farming being undertaken by himself and many others aiming to create a better product with a lighter footprint and the management and reporting systems that record these benefits. He was able to report that the cows were unaffected by the turbines, not even spooked by the shifting shadow patterns of the spinning turbines when crossing their path.
After we headed off we stopped off at Walkerville beach for a late picnic lunch and variously enjoyed having a splash and a wander, checking out the history of the old lime kiln and discovering a small section of coastal erosion indicating yet another part of the coast at risk from the encroaching ocean, all the while sharing knowledge about our work and learning more about each other.
Our FoE family movie night hot pick for the evening was Pride. A few of us fought back the tears as we variously learnt and enjoyed again the story of the courageous solidarity of the London group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, in the longest running strike by miners in the Thatcher era, reinforcing for us all many times over the importance of our own cross-sectional social and environmental justice approach at FoE.
And all too soon it was Saturday and time to depart on our merry ways.
As some of us headed home after some morning planning on our last day, a few of us headed to the local Foster Agricultural Show where we immediately met an old friend of our campaigns at the community house stall - small world it is! We then went down to the main stage to see Strz (aka Cranky) the koala regale young and old alike with some wildlife facts and figures while local youth ambassadors for wildlife were being selected by a judging panel.
Till next time, Friends!