Monday, June 6, 2011

The history of civil society in WA: PhD on the history of the WA forest protest movement

Reading a PhD thesis is not something you do for fun.

But Ron Chapman's PhD Fighting for the Forests: A History of the WA Forest Protest Movement 1895-2001 is an important document of WA  history.

I have long argued that  protest action by ordinary West Australian citizens, in the form of social movements and civil society action, has been at the forefront of most significant social, political, economic and environmental change in this state. This is not reflected in traditional narratives about Western Australian history which largely marginalize or trivialize the action taken by WA citizens fighting for social, economic, racial and environmental justice.

So I was excited to read Chapman's thesis which shows that forest protest has been a major force for environmental and political reform throughout WA history.

Chapman shows how over time small scale protest activity by citizens was transformed into a social movement that had a significant influence on forest policy and practice, culminating in the defeat of the Court Government in 2001 and the adoption of policy by the Gallop Government to protect WA forests

Chapman describes the diversity of protest activities used by WA civil society groups to focus public attention on forest issues and pressure the WA Government to change its forest policies and practices. He shows how protest groups had to constantly adapt organization and strategies to the changing social and political conditions.

Chapman's analyses the campaigns and strategies used by West Australian citizens and civil society groups from 1995 to 2001. He distinguishes a number of distinct periods, firstly from the late 19th century to 1950, and then a second period from 1950 to 2001, characterized by 5 distinct phases:
  1. Formative phase from the 1950's-60's which saved urban bushland.
  2. Transitional phase during the 1970's which adopted assertive forms of protest.
  3. Collaborative phase during the 1980's when campaigners began to collaborate with and influence political parties.
  4. Expansionary phase during the 1990's which saw the spread of local protest groups in the South west.
  5. Confrontational phase which involved an intensive campaign of confrontational and direct action.
Chapman's research demonstrate the importance of "localism" as an activist and organizing strategy. Chapman shows how the WA native forest protest movement established a network of urban and south-west activist groups which encouraged broad public support.

The eventual success of the forest protest movement resulted from the rise of these organized and effective local groups and campaigns focused on public education, media exposure and local action. The transformation of local action into an influential social movement played a significant role in bringing down a government and protecting  WA forests.

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