The Tarkine

by Henry West, medical student at University of Tasmania and DEA Tasmanian Student Representative

Continuing Tasmania’s longstanding tradition of heated and polarising debates concerning natural wilderness areas and their possible exploitation for forestry and mining is The Tarkine.  Currently, The Tarkine is Tasmania’s largest unprotected wilderness area and is located towards the northern end of the west coast of the state.  The area contains extensive landscapes that are at a very high level of biophysical naturalness.  These areas include the Norfolk Range, Mt Bertha, the Savage River system, and the Meredith Range as well as hundreds of kilometres of stunning and wild coastline.  The Tarkine is the largest tract of wilderness quality rainforest in Australia, and a large number of rivers that are in pristine or wilderness condition flow through her deep and twisting valleys. 

So why has this area of Tasmania, a state world-renowned for its vast tracts of protected and often World Heritage-listed wilderness, not on any such lists, bar those that include coupe numbers and ore deposit predictions?  The reason perhaps resides with the unavoidable fact that the region that makes up The Tarkine has had a long and often eventful history with mining and industry ever since European settlement.  Of course, Aboriginal settlement reaches back much further, with the Tarkiner people residing predominantly on the coastal regions of what we now call The Tarkine.

The long history of industry first begun with the piners, who would fell and then float cargos of Huon Pine from the wild rivers that made up The Tarkine.  Since then, pastoralists have cleared much land surrounding the dense forests, and small scale forestry and mining operations have been numerous, often at sustainable levels.  The people of the west coast regions were tough and hardworking.  Binks (1989) wrote that:

“There was a recognition from the beginning that west coasters were a people apart, who had to fight for whatever they needed in a world which tended very easily to forget their existence.  They joined battle with unresponsive governments just as persistently as they battled against an unresponsive country to establish a place for themselves and carve an industry and society out of a wilderness.  From this fight they emerged with a strong political and social identity”

This identity still exists to this day, but fewer and fewer people are choosing to reside on Tasmania’s west coast and inland north west region.  It is through the original hardworking and determined people of the west coast that the region ever survived, but this has now placed the region in a very troubling situation.  With a very small local economy, and minimal services available in most of the towns that make up the west coast community, the economic outlook is dire. 

The arrival of “big mine” western Australia style would be, and is seen by many on the west coast as, a sort of god send that will lead to jobs, an upturned economy for the region, and a brighter future.  This view seems to be one the state government of Tasmania shares, which is not surprising when one takes a look at the financial situation of the state in general.  Already, one mining company has been granted a lease to build a hematite mine within The Tarkine region on the Meredith Range.  The economic benefits have been touted:  30 jobs in construction and 30 in operation, millions of dollars a year into the region, a bright future for the west coast!  If only this were true.  With multiple Western Australian based companies wanting to explore for ore and build mines in The Tarkine region, soon the forest will be negated to become a mining zone reminiscent of the barren hills of Queenstown, which for those that haven’t seen them, are devoid of trees for kilometres and still leech heavy metals thanks to long forgotten mining booms.

The risks we run in allowing one or two mining operations into the region are obvious.  Firstly, we are signing off on allowing whatever is pulled from the ground to be the possession of the company that did so, and the state and people of Tasmania lose out on its ownership, bar small royalties paid to the state government.  Secondly, mining is not a long term solution for economic hardship.  It is impossible for mining to be long-term without constant expansion and continual destruction of our natural environment, which within The Tarkine is not acceptable.  The only real benefactors to the mining operations currently proposed will be the shareholders and executives of the companies interested in the ores they know are there.  The local region will no doubt receive a small boost, but once the mine has run its course and stripped the region of its valuable minerals and cleared out for Western Australia, what will be left is very minimal, most likely a rusting mining rig and desolate earth for many kilometres.  Having said this, once the mining companies up and leave, the impacts of the operations do not leave: the possible health impacts are much longer lasting.

In terms of the health of the people of the region, and those who visit, mining is not something that is regarded in the scientific community, or even the common-sense community, as having an overall positive effect.  Although minimal literature exists to qualify these sentiments in the case of the style of mining operations that will potentially be carried out in The Tarkine, there is well-documented evidence that demonstrates the effects of mining operations on surrounding ecosystems, most dramatically in water systems and the air of regions where mining occurs.  Tasmania has had a poor record of mines polluting water, often due to the huge amount of rain received by the west coast, where mining has been frequent.  The Mt Lyell mine, the old Mt Bischoff tin mine, and the Savage River mine still contaminate the upper reaches of multiple rivers, including the Arthur River, causing a virtual dead zone due to the high levels of toxic metals that leach into the river systems.  Many locals regard the water from these once wild and pristine rivers as untouchable.  Further to this, the possible negative mental health outcomes for further natural destruction within the west coast area are rarely acknowledged.  Providing false hope for a brighter future in mining operations will only lead to unfulfilled ideas about what the future can hold by going down the exploitation path.  Employment will only be short-term and the labour very difficult. 

Further to the tangible impacts of mining operations within The Tarkine, the continual loss of natural and untouched forests, especially in areas of such beauty as The Tarkine leads to a downgrading of the value of the natural world, and a loss of respect for the continual health of the planet we reside on.  Every day we witness endless acts of destruction to human kind, from wars and famine, to personal insults and injury.  The desensitisation we experience when confronted with such human destruction on a daily basis is well acknowledged, and the same situation rings true for our environment.  We must not let ourselves switch off to the destruction of the natural world like many of us seem to have done for human kind. 

To assist in the continued fight for The Tarkine, please consider writing to Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke, informing him of your views as to the future of the region.  He will have the final say as to signing off on environmental approval of any mines.  Also consider writing to the leaders of the Federal parties Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott and/or the Premier of Tasmania, Lara Giddings, asking them of their views on The Tarkine, and informing them of your own.  Try and use your medical knowledge to provide context for your letters!