Image for Business as usual in Triabunna?

Getting a firm grip on the subtleties of Tasmania’s ‘forest wars’ is a daunting task – a task beset with secrecy, misinformation, hidden agendas, and more ‘positions’ than the Kama Sutra.  Interestingly, the position currently being adopted by the Labor/Green government is known as the ‘Beast with 8 Limbs’ – an advanced pose, and one where both partners attempt to screw the other from behind.

Innuendo aside, however, one thing is clear.  There are real people, in real communities whose lives, and livelihoods, are inextricably linked to the industry – whether they like it or not.

The residents of the Tamar Valley have known this for seven years.  The threat, or promise – however they choose to look at it – of Gunns Tamar Valley Pulp Mill has been a crippling presence in their lives since the project was first proposed in 2004.  The citizens of the Tamar have banded together to express their frustrations, and take comfort, no doubt, in having a cause in common with many of their fellow Tasmanians.

But, what happens in smaller communities, where the presence of forestry in the everyday lives of the people is as much a part of their existence as breathing? 

What happens in townships like Triabunna?

Early afternoon in Triabunna last Friday was sunny, and very quiet.  Not unlike small country towns all over Australia. The township is a tidy, ordered reflection of the pride and loyalty of its citizens, but we know its survival is uncertain.  The bakery closed last week, and the stores were mostly empty.  As was the new $1.3 million kerbed, guttered and surfaced riverfront area.

We stopped there, took photos of the fishing boats and looked in at the Visitor Centre, which had the cleanest, neatest restroom I have ever had the pleasure of visiting – the seat was down, the floor was clean, there was plenty of paper and soap, and it smelt wonderful.

As we wandered around the town, we spoke to whoever we could find.

And, this is what we learned.

The new owners of the woodchip mill had asked all former employees to submit resumes that day.  The workers are expecting to hear next week if they will be re-employed.  About 50 people were employed in the mill, and it is not certain that all of them will get their jobs back.  Many of these workers are local men in their 50’s, and they have spent their entire working lives at the mill.  They still need to work, and they know nothing else.

Apart from the mill, job opportunities in Triabunna are scarce.  Some of the younger men work in the fishing industry, and there is some limited employment in tourism, but most of the businesses in town are family-owned and run, and offer no jobs to those outside the family.  The two pubs have some bar work for local women, mostly women with children looking for a little extra cash, but this work is inconsistent – an occasional supplement to a family’s main wage, if they’re lucky.

We made our way over the river and up the hill to the mill.  We parked inside the main gate, and were approached by a helpful young man who told us the site was closed.  He suggested we head over to the Eastcoaster Resort around five o’clock if we wanted to see a Chinese ship being loaded with woodchips.  In the town, we were told that no ships had been loading at the mill for several months, and those that did visit were Japanese.

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Back in town, a group of school kids were gathered outside the takeaway shop – the shop doing great business now the bakery is closed. 

Three elderly women were closing up the Buckland Parish Opp. Shop, and a trickle of townsfolk moved in and out of the post office, the Service Tas office and the supermarket.  We saw a young man cruise down the main street in a beautifully restored, and modified, Model T Ford.  The best car in town.

We had coffee in a newly-opened cafe/art space, featuring local art, craft and furniture. It was a classy, positive venture.  We also heard that there are plans to open a maritime museum in a shed at the river front, and the mobile fish van guy is doing really well.

Triabunna is clearly at a crossroads.  The town’s young people leave the local school in year 10, and many of them get straight on a bus to Hobart.  Some to find work, and some to pursue their schooling.  A significant number never come back.  The younger generation in Triabunna are receptive to the idea of tourism development in their town, but the older generation – the long time mill workers – are resistant.  And, understandably so.  Being unemployed in your fifties, when you have worked hard for 30 years, and you still need an income, can be soul-destroying. Learning new skills seems impossible.

The mill site is beautiful – its potential clearly wasted on an ageing woodchip mill.  Re-inventing Triabunna will require imagination, and a clear understanding of the town and its people.  The older mill workers will retire soon, and until they do, they should not be subjected to the whims of a capricious, self-serving forest industry. 

And, without something to keep them in town, the young people will continue to leave. 

Triabunna is a microcosm of what’s happening all over Tasmania – a place where people care about their home, and their environment, but are manipulated by a lazy, deceitful government, and pernicious corporate interests.

What can we do about it?