Across nine years with the Bob Brown Foundation – and prior to that, 13 years as the co-founder of the Huon Valley Environment Centre – Jenny Weber has co-ordinated hundreds of direct-action campaigns in now World Heritage-listed forests and built up a reputation as the quintessential Tasmanian logging protester. While she typifies the hardiness, the inventiveness and the persistence that’s needed to fight logging in its most established strongholds, she’s also articulate, quietly spoken and capable of doubt. She often returns to questions to see whether her logic has held up. She is, in many ways, the antithesis of the ‘rabid greenie’ stereotype so favoured by the industry and sectors of the media. And then there’s the question of whether she’s a Tasmanian at all…


Living in Wollongong, and heavily into live music and surfing, there’s every chance Jenny’s life may have followed a different path. Her partner Adam Burling was working with the Wilderness Society, and it was he who turned the corner first. “He wanted to go to Tassie,” Jenny explains, “to see wild places, forests. I was like – ‘Why go there? It’s got no live music and no surf.’ I’d never been there, you see. And I was one of those New South Wales people who’d forget to put Tasmania on a map of Australia.” She theorises that those perceptions of isolation have a lot to do with why the rest of Australia doesn’t have Tasmania on their mental maps of things that matter.


They moved in 1998, and when the time came to settle there, they drew a circle around Hobart, wanting to be close to the city but also to the forest. In the end, the perfect compromise was a little town called Huonville, down the Huon Valley about 40 minutes south of Hobart. The move meant a long hiatus in Jenny’s surfing days. “We’d moved to a forest and we had nothing to do with the sea at all in those early days. We immersed ourselves in trees and rivers, and I think it tapped into some similar part of me that was previously the ocean.”


Which brings us back to the matter of being a local. It's been a quarter-century for Jenny and Adam, but are you ever really a Tasmanian if you’re a transplant? “It’s funny,” she says, “I don’t feel Tasmanian. I feel like I’m still a Wollongong girl, but I don’t really think in those terms anyway. Deep down I suspect I belong in New South Wales, but my two children (Ruby, 20 and Finn, 14) deeply consider themselves Tasmanian. And I can’t imagine myself being anywhere else in the world.”


That sense of being slightly removed means that Jenny can chuckle now and then about Tasmanian eccentricities, and still be shocked by the destruction she sees around her. “People from elsewhere come to the Tarkine to help out, or to learn, and they say, ‘Why do they log the forests?’ I don’t even think about the why anymore.”

The focus in takayna/Tarkine in recent years has been MMG’s zinc, copper and lead mine and their proposed tailings dam, which threatens wildlife like the rare Tasmanian masked owl. Photo Calumn Hockey

The activist scene accepted her long ago. She was the inaugural winner of the Bob Brown Foundation’s Environmentalist of the Year Award in 2012. As she often does when answering a question, Jenny tells a little story to illustrate the bonds: “The other night, a group of us finished a huge day in the forest, showing people everything, doing scientific surveys, cooking up a vegan meal, and we rolled out our bivvies, and we were lying there talking… and you feel you’ve been part of a bigger thing, you know? The long game, as they like to call it. You have a win now and then, but you have to go on fighting and fighting. We’re resilient. There are the people who are strong and kind, those who fall into despair and anguish. That draws us closer together. In actions, you’re up against the system, and we’re dealing with angry forest workers. So we need to work closely together the de-escalate, to be non-violent in our language and gestures.”

The frustration of this asymmetry is always there, just under the surface in Jenny’s responses, along with the importance of never letting it surface. Days before we spoke, ten activists were arrested in a swift parrot habitat and the media were not interested, not listening. So, as Jenny sees it, you get creative in your communications. “That binds us together, too. A core group of us have been together for 17 years now, but other people are more transient through the activist community, so there’s still a need for concerted recruiting.”

Jenny’s fairly sure no-one’s ever tried to infiltrate the movement in Tassie. “But it did happen in NSW about ten years ago – it was undercover police who were trying to get in. It took about five minutes to work out what they were up to.” I’m imagining the hair was a giveaway, or the refusal to eat vegan. “So we’re alert to it,” she continues. “People do get paranoid about outsiders, but we don’t want to be exclusive, a secret society of forest defenders. You have to be open.”

Jenny’s husband Adam was sued some years ago by Tasmanian logging company Gunns Ltd, along with the Environment Centre. Their initial suspicion was that they’d got inside somehow, but when their evidence came to light it was of such poor quality that it was clear they weren’t. “I don’t reckon they even came into the Environment Centre," she laughs.

Much of the discussion with Jenny centres around getting arrested, having to sneak around. It all leads to a central question that‘s bedevilling environmental protestors now: what is the ethical framework that allows breaking the law in a good cause? I put to Jenny that many other people break the law because of their sincerely held belief in something that the rest of us can objectively see is wrong. Environmental beliefs are sincerely held. How does she know it’s right to break these laws, and not others?

There’s a long silence as she composes an answer. It’s immediately clear that she’s struggled with this question already. “I was brought up in a very law-abiding household, and we had nothing to do with the police. A lot of our activists have never had anything to do with the police, and here they are looking at deliberately breaking the law.”

“But there is a significant difference between lawlessness and civil disobedience. If I don’t agree with traffic laws, am I free to act on my sincerely held belief and ignore them? Speeding laws were introduced for the benefit of civil society. Logging protest laws were not. We’re non-violent. We aim to do no harm to other people or to species. To ‘trespass’ onto public land to protest logging? We see that law as an injustice.” It’s a position, she says, that’s based on standing up for the voiceless. “We aren’t in it for ourselves. We’re in it for the environment.”

“The forest doesn’t provide that physical force, but something different: essential and wild. The moss layers, the trees, it’s such an incredible, ancient place.” Photo Calumn Hockey

So what about throwing paint at artworks? Or Violet Coco’s blocking of the Sydney Harbour Bridge? NSW Greens MP Sue Higginson said recently, about the laws that resulted in Violet’s arrest and imprisonment: “The right to dissent, and the rules of engagement in how we dissent, including non-violent peaceful direct action is something very, very important to our system and at the moment our government is putting that at risk.” Is that an adequate justification?

“I stand in solidarity with Violet, as we’re in such a state of crisis in the environment. The best answer I can think of is the Aboriginal man from Burrup Peninsula who said, ‘Why are our thousands of years of heritage not as important as this artwork in the gallery?’” We talk about society’s understanding of value – the value of a painting, the value of a glacier or a forest. Jenny settles in the end on the idea that those actions provoked a conversation, and the conversation is a good thing.

“The cops really have no troubles with us,” she maintains. “They say it to us. We’ve got people in court at the moment on charges, and the senior sergeant giving evidence has said in cross-examination that it’s a pleasure to work with them. When we’re doing actions, we stand at the front line with one of us designated as the police liaison person. It’s often me – I introduce myself, explain what we’re doing. Those exchanges are always civil.”

That’s not to discount just how scary it can get on the front lines. Jenny has said elsewhere that she measures the personal abuse she experiences against the extreme violence that’s experienced by environmental advocates in other parts of the globe, “and it doesn’t measure as bad.”

But she’s been arrested multiple times, and there’s certainly been death threats. In 2006, Jenny coordinated a year-long blockade in the Weld Valley. The blockade was eventually breached and 50 activists were arrested, but the place has now been World Heritage listed. She was approached there by a group of loggers. “I showed them the tree sitter we had up there. This old logger pulls out a knife and goes for the lifeline to the tree sit, which literally holds the thing up. Our tree sitter would have plummeted to the ground if he’d got it. I had to put myself in front of him. We had a filmer, so I thought, no worries, if anything goes down it’s going to be on film, but another guy had snatched the camera and was holding it over the fire. So there was a stand-off, and he said, ‘I’ll cut you…’ I calmed him down.”

Jenny was recently in a logging camp at night when things got decidedly weird. “It was about 10pm, and this guy turns up with a young woman in a car, and he says, ‘Move, I’m going out back behind you, I’ve lost my mate.’ We were at the end of a dead-end road – there was no way he was telling the truth. It was just odd. So I said, ‘Let’s call the cops.’ He said, ‘Nah.’ There was a 45-minute standoff, and the woman couldn’t hold onto the story – she got abusive, started to reveal that they were connected to the loggers. They left, came back at midnight – we always have a watch – this time with another woman. ‘Here’s his girlfriend,’ they said. I was trying to talk to her, but she wouldn’t talk to me. Suddenly a guy walks out of the bush, covered in fake blood, swearing at us… they were setting up an accusation that we’d harmed them. I felt like I was hallucinating. I told the police the next day and the first cop said, ‘You shouldn’t have been there.’ The next cop was more senior, and he took it seriously. We were protesting there, but also doing scientific surveys with other people, and this same guy would turn up and just watch us. It was creepy.”

There’s less violence now, Jenny thinks. “When Gunns was collapsing there was a cohort of angry violent men. But there’s no trouble in the Tarkine these days.” Does that mean the tide has turned on native forests then? “No. There’s a long way to go. A lot of people don’t have a concept of how serious it is. Sadly, the NSW bushfires a couple of summers ago brought home to people that when forests burn, you lose a lot of animals. If you had a plebiscite tomorrow on whether native forest logging should be ended, the majority would say yes. But day to day, people don’t think enough about it.”

On the road with Bob Brown during the Stop Adani convoy in 2019. Photo courtesy BBF

Jenny believes that politically, the CFMEU still have the power within the Labor Party to keep the native forest logging industry going; spending millions and millions of dollars across the nation to subsidise “this insanely uneconomic activity.” Which calls to mind forest ecologist David Lindenmayer’s image of the honest logger, chainsaw in hand, wearing his flannel shirt, set against the reality of a bunch of guys in machines. Jenny can relate to it. “There’s this romantic myth of the logger and his family, and how important his family is, and the food on his table is, but apparently no-one else’s.”

Mainland Australia has looked to Tasmania as the frontline of ecological debate for generations now. Activists like Jenny are both tired of that stereotype, but also responsible for keeping Tassie in the public eye. “Tasmania has an incredible history,” Jenny says. “I find it unfathomable how the Franklin campaign holds onto the public imagination. It’s monolithic – people hark back to it even now. Since then there’s been dedicated, long-term actions like the Daintree and Jabiluka, the Goolengook forest campaign in Victoria… but sadly generations of people are just passing the baton to others. We need to build a mass movement.”

In trying to scale up environmental movements, there’s always that tension between advocacy from outside politics, and advocates entering the political fray. Are activists more effective inside the tent, in politics, or attacking it from the outside? “I think we definitely need more activists inside the tent in politics,” Jenny says. “People like Sue Higginson in New South Wales. I fundamentally believe that.” There’s a frustrated sigh when I mention the cautionary tale of Peter Garrett. “He could have been the leader of the Greens at some stage post-Bob Brown if he’d chosen them over Labor. Christine Milne was great, and she’s an environmental expert, but she was a woman in Canberra – she experienced a lot of the discrimination that women in politics experience.”

“Labor wasn’t ready for Garrett back then – they didn’t have the gumption. His idea of going to a party of government in the hope of being a minister wasn’t inherently flawed, but he ended up making decisions as a minister that were exactly contrary to the things he sang as a protesting artist. A lot of us grew up on him… what do I think now? I think Moginie and the others wrote those words, not Garrett.”

Feelings ran deep over Garrett’s political compromises. As Minister for the Environment he visited Tasmania, and protestors made lentil balls and served them to him – figuratively, his balls on a plate. “Bob (Brown) often has the right take on these things,” Jenny says. “He said at the time, ‘Why would you think he could be any use in the Labor Party?’”

There’s an intriguing comment in an online interview with Jenny, where she appears to make a parallel between the women’s movement, Black Power in America and environmental protesting. Leaving aside the obvious commonality that all three are protest movements, what connects them? “I meant by that, that many losses were suffered before any real, fundamental changes were made,” says Jenny. “When you’re an activist, you’re a student of other movements through time and around the world. You don’t just stumble into what you’re doing. Very often, you’re standing in a forest protesting, the police move you on, the politicians do nothing and the trees keep falling. It happens year after year. I’ve heard it said that ‘you never win here in Tasmania.’ So, as they did in those movements, you celebrate your little victories. Activists have been overwhelmed by despair, have abused alcohol or even suicided. You have to change your measure of what constitutes a ‘win.’ I might look around and see that we’ve gathered people together to protect this place on this day, and we’re here, in the forest. If you focused on tomorrow and the things that won’t happen, that won’t change, you’d be demoralised.”

Like many Tasmanians, Jenny changes form during Dark Mofo. Photo Tim Cooper

I wonder what Jenny sees when she talks to loggers. Does she see defiance, or rage, or resignation to a different future? It varies, she tells me. “One guy in the southern forests we used to protest against a lot, he said to me eventually, ‘I’m getting out. You’ve been right the whole way along.’ We asked him why he’d kept going all that time, and he said, ‘Because it’s all I know.’”

“I’m aware of my privilege here,” she says. “There are kids in Tassie who leave school in year ten to go log the forest because that’s what their families have done. There’s a huge disparity in privilege between those families and mine. But a couple of the families are absolute believers, and they say they have every right to do what they do. And they’ll happily be facetious about it.”

Old ways are slow to change. There’s a century of logging culture in Tasmania that’s armoured with crude jokes, anecdotes, aphorisms. Industry is right, the greenies are wrong. “Give your country enough bread and circuses and no-one will revolt,” is how Jenny puts it. “So in our case, give ‘em a footy stadium and they’ll stay happy.”

There’s a persistent belief, according to Jenny, that enough land has been protected, and that the state – Australia’s poorest – needs logging. Jenny and her colleagues try to examine those beliefs as gently as they can, try to “be Zen about it.” But forest industry workers often scoff at the notion that their children’s futures, or their’s, might be in tourism. “I’m not working in a bloody café,” is a common response to this. Jenny points out that National Parks need plumbers, electricians, all sorts of trades – not just coffee. “It gets dumbed down,” she laments. “But David Lindenmayer’s onto a great message about restoration – that it needs an army of people who are good in the bush, good at working out in the elements.”

At the end of each year, Jenny goes home to Wollongong to spend a month with her family. There’s a sense, when she describes it, that the trip functions as a kind of recharge. “We swim in the sea, get in the waves. The forest doesn’t provide that physical force, but something different: essential and wild. The moss layers, the trees, it’s such an incredible, ancient place. I was brought up in a family who reminded me that the ocean is bigger than we are. It’s the same in the forests, knowing you’re a very small part of a giant ecosystem.”

Jenny with the Foundation’s takayna campaign head, Scott Jordan. “Takayna is an outstanding natural area,” he says. “It’s an area that has been verified as having both natural heritage and world heritage values, and yet, it remains unprotected because of the failures of subsequent governments.” Photo Mathew Newton



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