Based on the US group of the same name and launched with a blockade of the Dungeness nuclear power station in Kent, Earth First! has been the prime mover behind the massive wave of anti-roads protest which has spread across Britain.
But sabotage has been on their agenda also. Timber yards and peat extraction sites as well as road projects have been damaged. A recent assault on the Department of Transport, where tens of thousands of pounds'-worth of computer equipment was destroyed, has been seen as a revenge raid by Earth First! radicals in response to the demolition of houses in east London to build the M11 motorway extension, although no one has claimed responsibility.
The group both in Britain and in the US has been deeply split on strategy, with a militant wing arguing for an increase in sabotage and moderates suggesting that mass Gandhian-style non-violent direct action is the best way forward.
This weekend's gathering at a farm near Swindon, the group's first for two years, will, organisers admit, involve "a lot of soul- searching". Although the movement has had an impact, many supporters say they are exhaust-ed after years of struggle and the Criminal Justice Act has created a powerful legal weapon against direct action. Last Wednesday's High Court ruling that livestock export bans are illegal has depressed activists, who overlap with animal-liberation campaigners. Pressure is mounting for a more extreme strategy.
Militants associated with the underground group's journal, Do Or Die, are circulating other activists with copies of Ecodefense, a US guide to "monkeywrenching": techniques for destroying earth-moving equipment, burning down advertising hoardings and even sinking whaling ships.
Group members are also being urged to go for tougher tactics in valedictory messages from the two founders of UK Earth First!, Jason Torrance and Jake Burbridge, who after years of activism are leaving to live in the wilderness. Torrance recently left to live in the Australian Bush, while Burbridge is to exchange inner-city Glasgow for the forests of Sweden.
As 19-year-old students disillusioned with Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, they founded the UK organisation four years ago. It grew rapidly and now has more than 60 local groups and thousands of committed activists. The attraction was Earth First!'s activities in North America, where the slogan "No Compromise in Defence of Mother Earth" was used to justify sabotaging vehicles and machinery.
The US movement was formed in 1981 by activists who felt that existing environmental groups had become too distant from "grassroots" campaigning and too ready to compromise with government and industry.
Their most controversial tactic has been "treespiking", where spikes are driven into trees to prevent them being felled or processed in sawmills. In 1984, for example, Canadian Earth First! placed more than 11,000 ceramic nails, all potentially lethal for a chainsaw-wielding worker, in threatened spruce trees in British Columbia.
Burbridge has been arrested "more times than I can remember" and imprisoned twice. Both he and Torrance admit failures. The Government may have cut the motorway programme and dropped plans to widen the M25 to 14 lanes but activists have been defeated at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill and the M11. "We have never stopped a road that they have started building," Burbridge says, "although it seemed as if we could in Glasgow."
Torrance is disillusioned, fearing that "Britain will soon be called London . . . made up of one big urban sprawl." Both despair of Britain, citing inner-city poverty, environmental decay and declining civil rights.
Despite his departure for Sweden, Burbridge is inspired byGlaswegian green activism and believes that radical campaigners can make it too difficult and expensive for companies to damage the environment.
But others see co-operation and non-violence as the way forward. Charles Secrett, director of Friends of the Earth, which pulled out of direct action at Twyford Down after an injunction threat, feels it is now possible to work with elements in Earth First! "Frankly, they have grown up," he notes, arguing that activists are now far more likely to plan actions with care, rather than "jumping in and alienating locals".
"Relations between direct action activists have improved. Un-ited we stand, divided we fall."Reuse content