'Tree huggers' are sued by Tasmanian logging firm in bid to halt campaigns

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The Independent Online

Tasmania has long been a battleground between the logging giants that control the timber industry and environmentalists fighting to preserve the island's native hardwood forests.

Now the state's biggest private logging company, Gunns, has dramatically upped the ante, serving a A$6.3m (£2.5m) damages writ on 20 conservation groups and activists. Opponents have denounced the move as bully-boy tactics designed to stifle free speech.

Gunns is thought to be the first Australian company to use a "slap suit" to silence critics, although the strategy is not uncommon in the US. Some observers have drawn parallels with the "McLibel" case in London, where McDonald's spent 10 years suing two protesters who distributed leaflets attacking it.

While the forestry industry in Tasmania is notoriously defensive, Gunns appears to be setting new standards. It recently threatened to sue a man who wrote a critical letter to a newspaper, and told a television station to broadcast more positive stories about logging. Three months ago, a Gunns contractor accidentally sprayed a Tasmanian couple and their farm with a potentially carcinogenic herbicide, atrazine, while dumping it on a nearby plantation by helicopter. The incident came to light after atrazine was found in their drinking water.

The practices of the island's forestry industry have long aroused controversy. Logging sites are "clearfelled", with every tree chopped down, and then firebombed to clear remnants of vegetation. Poison is laid to kill native wildlife that eats the fast-growing plantation seedlings subsequently sown. Wallabies, wombats, potaroos and ring-tail possums are among the tens of thousands of animals that die agonising deaths every year. Asked recently if it was acceptable to kill all wildlife in a designated area, the chief executive of Gunns, John Gay, replied: "Yes."

In the 216-page writ, lodged in the Victoria Supreme Court, the company accuses its 20 critics - who include a 60-year-old grandmother - of disrupting its business through grassroots action and blackening its name through "corporate vilification". It claims, among other things, that they sabotaged machinery, destroyed property, blocked access to land and obstructed police at four logging sites.

Last week hundreds of people rallied in Hobart in support of "the Gunns 20", as they are now called. Rallies were also held in Sydney, Adelaide and Launceston, Tasmania. "There is a culture of intimidation and fear in Tasmania. But the people won't stand for it," said Tasmanian novelist Richard Flanagan. "The people have had enough." Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens and one of the Gunns 20, said the writ represented a threat to democracy and a dangerous precedent. "They can take every penny I've got, but I won't be silenced," he said.

Gunns, which mainly logs timber exported as woodchips for the Japanese paper industry, recorded a A$105m profit this year, up 42 per cent on 2003.