The Daintree Blockade
In the early 1980s, pressure was growing for the missing road link between Cape Tribulation and Bloomfield to be completed. The campaign was spearheaded by the Douglas Shire Council, a move the State Government supported wholeheartedly. It was known that the council of the day had an agenda to ‘open up’ the northern portion of the shire to development. However the 17,000 hectare Cape Tribulation National Park had been gazetted in 1981, encompassing a significant part of the last remaining large tract of tropical lowland forest in Australia. The only problem was that the road was to be forged through the new national park!
Several official reasons were given for the justification of the road - it would benefit tourism; authorities would be better equipped to police a steadily growing drug problem; it would deter bird trappers and orchid thieves; and it would allow residents of Cooktown an easier and quicker access to Cairns. Some supporters of the road put forward their reasons to justify its impending construction - it would 'deter illegal immigrants, wildlife smugglers, drug runners and other undesirables, and serves as 'an invaluable defence measure from invaders from the north!'
The same supporters of the road argued that there should be no concern for the destruction of the lowland forest if the road were to be build for 'there was plenty of rainforest on the mountains above the lowlands through which the road was to be built.' It was also argued that most of the road would run through 'scrubby mixed forest which is only rubbish anyway.
Those campaigning against its construction obtained scientific opinion. This showed that, in keeping with the rest of the lowland rainforest in the area, it was scientifically some of the most important and significant on Earth. They too voiced their opinions for the reasons for construction of the road, including a suspicion that a developer had plans to subdivide another large tract of rainforest and needed access. In retrospect and with the events that followed, they were probably close to the mark.
In December 1983, Douglas Shire Council bulldozers arrived to construct the road. Many people gathered to try to physically prevent work from proceeding. Protesters set up headquarters at the work site at Cape Tribulation and the long confrontation began. A large contingent of police arrived. Over the following days protesters climbed trees, chained themselves to trees or buried themselves in the path of the bulldozers. Many were arrested. After some delay, bulldozers began work from both the Cape Tribulation and the Bloomfield ends of the road.
The confrontation attracted the media which every day reported the happenings to the nation. The building of the road quickly became the major environmental issue in Australia, but the government was unrelenting. In three short weeks, the road was pushed through. The Douglas Shire Council claimed victory.
The Rain Comes...
The year was almost at an end and the men who had driven the machines left for the traditional Christmas break. Then the traditional Wet arrived! Constant deluges of heavy rain damaged the new road in many places as predicted by those opposing its construction. Landslides completely blocked it. Significant amounts of soil were flushed into the waters of the World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef.
The road was abandoned until the following Dry, when in August the council returned to repair and re-open it. An atmosphere of controversy and protest still prevailed. Finally the road was officially opened on 7 October, 1984. Local parliamentarians, politicians and local supporters attended. The Minister for Main Roads performed the ceremony, after which the official motorcade left to traverse the road. Before they had travelled far, 30 millimetres of rain fell and their vehicles became bogged in the mud. (October is one of the driest months of the year) The final nemesis was had by the national newspaper ‘The Australian’ which blazoned the headlines across the nation the next morning - ‘BIGWIGS BOGGED AFTER GRAND OPENING OF DAINTREE ROAD!’
World Heritage Listing
The final outcome of the Daintree controversy resulted in a determined effort by the conservation movement to protect all tropical rainforests in north Queensland for all time by having them listed under World Heritage protection.
The Queensland Government vehemently opposed the anticipated listing and sent a delegation led by the Minister for National Parks to a meeting of the world body for World Heritage in Brazil to oppose the nomination. But the government's efforts failed. With the support of the Commonwealth Government, the Wet Tropics of Queensland claimed its rightful place on the world Heritage List on 9 December, 1988.
The High Court Challenges
But the saga did not end there. The State Government continued its opposition to the listing, refusing to co-operate with the Commonwealth Government in a joint management scheme and retaliating by launching two court challenges.
The first, in the High Court of Australia, based on constitutional issues, was lost. In November 1989 the Commonwealth Government went ahead and set up a management authority without the participation of the State Government and appointed its own representatives.
The second challenge in the Federal Court involved technical matters including sustained logging in World Heritage forests. But the case was never heard. At the ensuing election in early December 1989, the government was soundly defeated after 23 years in power. The new State Government lost no time in announcing its support for the listing and gave assurances that it would work closely with the Commonwealth Government to manage the new World Heritage area.
The Road Today
The road has benefited tourism, enabling many people to experience this beautiful region, however, because it was constructed in haste, it was poorly built. In many places, especially over Donovan and Cowie Ranges, it is very steep, eroding during the Wet when it can become impassable for weeks. In the Dry it is a slow road which can only be negotiated by four wheel drive vehicles.
Blockade Creek where most of the protest took place is located a couple of kilometers north of the Cape Trib Beach House. It is an unnamed creek distinguished by the Daintree National Park - Cape Tribulation Section sign.
This extract is from ‘Daintree - Jewel of Tropical North Queensland’ self-published by Lloyd Nielsen (author, illustrator, publisher) in 1997 and is reproduced here with kind permission. This book can be purchased at Daintree Discovery Centre, Masons Shop, The Bat House, and online at www.birdingaustralia.com.au.