Wednesday, August 28, 2002

No Toxic Dump

"The campaign may ultimately have been won with WRATD's plan to blockade the dump site, but to leave the story at that would leave out the far more interesting story of how WRATD developed the political authority to be able to make such a call."


No Toxic Dump
By Paul Strangio
Pluto Press Australia, 2001

Community versus globalisation

Paul Strangio introduces No Toxic Dump by comparing the two buzzwords "globalisation" and "community". While "the revival of community is widely invoked as a kind of all-purpose antidote for people's feelings of disempowerment", this is usually "in highly abstract terms", he notes. The community struggle that Strangio has documented brings the issues of globalisation back down to earth.

Strangio outlines the nuts and bolts of a campaign that beat the neo-liberal Victorian government of Premier Jeff Kennett and CSR, one of Australia's biggest corporations.

In 1996, CSR revealed plans to establish a toxic waste landfill in the outer Melbourne suburb of Werribee. This was not the first time such plans had been mooted for the area, and locals were quick to express their opposition.

The subsequent, ultimately successful, campaign was led by the Werribee Residents Against a Toxic Dump (WRATD). After mass rallies and blockade training, it was made fairly clear to both CSR and the government that mass civil disobedience would mean that the project could not go ahead without huge costs, delays and adverse political consequences. The project was abandoned.

That's probably what many on the left would remember of the campaign: a community stood up for itself; the forces of evil were defeated by the power of the people. Strangio's book doesn't labour that point, but it provides a wealth of information about how the campaign organised to win.

From market gardeners to Victoria University lecturer (and veteran leftie) Harry Van Moorst, the campaign drew in a very wide swathe of people, from all political affiliations: dissident Liberals to left-of-Labor activists; local residents to local businesses and the Wyndham council.

The campaign may ultimately have been won with WRATD's plan to blockade the dump site, but to leave the story at that would leave out the far more interesting story of how WRATD developed the political authority to be able to make such a call.

Over many months of hard work, WRATD extensively researched the industrial, political and environmental issues involved in toxic waste disposal. This enabled them to explain the dangers in a credible fashion and propose alternatives that consciously went beyond parochial NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) politics.

An extensive engagement with the Environmental Protection Agency's processes demonstrated that the legal avenues of combating the proposal were limited. It was only after all this that the mass protest campaign took off in a big way.

The conclusion of the book details the incoming Labor government's promise to investigate alternatives to landfill for waste disposal/recycling. Other groups campaigning against toxic waste facilities in the south-eastern suburbs and Niddrie benefited from the victory. WRATD transformed itself into the Western Region Environment Centre, preserving some of the organisational legacies of the campaign.

For young or new green and left activists, No Toxic Dump is worth reading not only for its political lessons, but for an account of the hard work that is inevitably necessary for any successful campaign. That WRATD managed to defeat the strongest Liberal Party-led state government in the country and a major multinational at the same time suggests that how they did it should be of more than passing interest to activists.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 506, 28 August 2002.

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