Conservation or Corruption? Preserving the Sacred Land at Bambara

jake kids 3

23rd February 2015

By Andy Whiteley

Contributing Writer for  Wake Up World

Bambara, meaning “Forest” in a local Aboriginal language, is an  area of great cultural and environmental significance. Consisting of around  180 acres of native bushland on Australia’s Central Coast, it  is home to 35 known threatened flora and fauna species including the Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) and the iconic Koala (Phascolarctus cinereus), whose local population is nearly extinct.

The traditional lands of  the Indigenous Guringai and Darkinoong people, Bambara has an incredible number  of Aboriginal engravings, cave paintings and artefacts on display, including 23  registered Aboriginal sites and countless unregistered sites. It is part of a known “Song line”, which is a network of ancient tracks walked by  Aboriginal tribes for millennia, connecting sacred ceremonial sites and other culturally significant spaces  around the Australian continent (including a sacred women’s site at Calga).

The area is also home to the controversial and mysterious “Kariong Egyptian Hieroglyphs” which have been the subject of international documentaries, much research and a great deal of academic scrutiny, as well as a being a local tourist attraction. (Learn more  here.)

Most importantly, the area is also geographically central to a wider ecosystem that is under genuine threat of collapse; its natural waterways depleted by State Government-sanctioned industrial over-use,  threatening the future of the region’s hanging swamps, natural waterways, and the many endangered native species that rely on them. (Read more here).

Actively preserving and supporting the area’s delicate ecological and historic balance is  an obvious priority to the Central Coast community, and as a result, the current Liberal member for Gosford (Central Coast) Chris Holstein promised to secure the Bambara area under the National Parks scheme as part of the election  campaign that saw him elected almost 4 years ago. To date, this campaign promise has not been honoured by the NSW State Government, and the majority of this sensitive area remains in the possession of private developers, the land zoned for commercial development.

Any development of this area could be potentially devastating to the local ecosystem and the ancient heritage that is embedded in it so prominently.  With this in mind, many locals believe it is naive to view the resistance  of the NSW State Government to honouring its  commitment to preserve this land  in isolation of its recent record of corruption, particularly as it relates to planning and development in NSW.

A Culture of Corruption?

Recent investigations conducted by the  Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) into Government activities led the independent regulator to pursue corruption allegations against countless members of Government’s highest offices, including charges from funding fraud and money laundering, to corruption of regulatory process. Specifically, ICAC took  actions against a majority (5 out of 7) of Central Coast members.

Community Solidarity - Bentley site

Community solidarity at the Bentley site in Lismore NSW.

The NSW State Government is also facing ongoing legal and moral  opposition  from the Central Coast community to a  major mining extension  at Calga, approved by NSW State Government in December 2013 despite what both experts and community members predict  to be devastating ecological impacts.

According to Ian Sutton, the President of sustainability project Equilibrium Future Solutions, “The development of this massive expansion of Rocla’s Calga sand mine will have huge impacts on the Central Coast’s already severely degraded water systems… My professional opinion is that if the Calga sand mine expansion goes ahead, the impacts will be massive and long term, while the benefits to the Central Coast community will be minimal and short term”.

Raising further question of  corruption at a State Government level, an eco-tourism business adjacent to the disputed Calga mine – Glenworth Valley – reportedly  received a half-million dollar grant from the NSW State Government, raising questions in the community about Glenworth’s agreement to facilitate the regulatory needs of the  neighbouring mine site. Notably, Glenworth’s new-found support for the disputed mine expansion follows its decades of active legal opposition to the development.

This comes after a string of community-opposed approvals were granted to other extraction industries, casting serious doubt over the planning and development priorities of the NSW State Government. In 2014 a leaked internal document revealed that the NSW Department of Planning was found to have pre-approved a similarly unpopular mining development, the disputed T4 coal port extension at Newcastle, before the required community consultation process had even commenced. Meanwhile the Lismore community in northern NSW successfully blockaded a coal seam gas (fracking) operation, halting a  Government-approved operation that – while profitable to the operator and the NSW Government – posed countless dangers to the health of the community and environment.  (learn more)

The Government’s dubious  record has led many in the Central Coast community to  wonder, are corruption and regulatory negligence now endemic in the NSW State Government?

Given the  delicacy of the ecology in these areas, and the community sentiment against these  developments, the NSW State Government’s questionable record of regulatory and environmental management has raised some serious doubts  about its priorities, particularly those of the Department of Planning, and the Office of Environment. etc. And, with its promise to secure Bambara as National Park land still unfulfilled, community members are now concerned not just for the political future of the Central Coast region but for its environmental future.  Left in the hands of the current NSW State Government, further plans for  mining and fracking operations seem  an inevitable yet devastating conclusion.

Something Has to Change…

Enter Jake Cassar.

Cassar, 39, is a bush-survival expert, singer and musician, youth and community worker, and environmental and social justice activist – and now, an independent candidate for the NSW State Government seat of Gosford.

jake

Jake Cassar, Independent Candidate for Gosford

With his election campaign (and his life’s work) centred  on improving the lives of his community and protecting the  environment from damaging commercial development, Jake has been instrumental in creating several new National Parks in the  area, leading an 8-year campaign to ensure the protection of Bambara and the many threatened native species of wildlife that inhabit it.

One of the country’s foremost authorities on edible and medicinal native plants, “bush tucker guru” Jake grew up in Woy Woy on the Central Coast, and has a natural affinity with the native bushland. A natural progression from his  career in community work, environmental advocacy and social justice, Jake believes he can do more to help meet the community’s needs from  within Government, holding those in office accountable to their community from the  inside.

Today, Cassar speaks to Wake Up World about Bambara, his background, and his motivations for throwing his well-worn  akubra  into a  political ring dominated by bureaucratic  shirts-and-ties.

Interview with Jake Cassar

Andy: Jake, I’ve been following the movement to protect  Bambara from development for around 3 years now. How did you get involved in the cause?

Jake: Back in 2007 in my capacity as a youth worker, I was taking a group of boys from the local Juvenile Justice Centre on a bush walk at Bambara and one of the boys noticed that there was tags all over the trees. He asked me “Why are all these tags on the trees Jake” to which I answered “I’m not sure mate, but I will find out and let you know. Little did I know at the time the battle I had ahead of me and the impact that would have on my life.”

Andy: So what happened next?

Jake: Well I found out developers had applied to Gosford Council to develop Bambara and regarding that development application (D.A), I was able to gain the support of a traditional custodian from the Guringai people who was acting as a cultural heritage officer for the D.A and that D.A was rejected. The fact that the Guringai  refused the development based on the area’s cultural significance basically meant the development application was blown out of the water. But not long after, the developers were at it again and another D.A had been lodged. I contacted Gosford Council and found out that there was a new development application to basically bulldoze the forest at Bambara for a housing development. I was floored. To me it was like hearing a family member or close friend was scheduled to be executed.

The next thing I know I’m in the Land and Environment Court as a public objector to the development. On paper, Gosford Council were saying they were against the development and had officially refused it, but in Court it was a different story. Gosford Councils Ecologist and Archaeologist looked very much like they were working in with the developer’s experts to sustain the development, with Gosford Council’s Ecologist agreeing that the impact on threatened flora and fauna was “acceptable”. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. How could Gosford Council say they were against the development but then agree with the developers experts on nearly every point?

On a couple of occasions both the legal team from Gosford Council and a Cultural Heritage Officer from Darkinjung Local Aboriginal Land Council said the exact same thing to me: “This will probably go ahead Jake. Just so you know.” It was at this point that I realized I was going to have a fight on my hands. This really didn’t feel right. Everyone on all  sides of Government basically  viewed  the development as a done deal. So I went to work researching the history of development applications in the area and questioning Gosford Council’s legal team and experts and anyone from the developer’s team that would talk to me. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, but I would approach the experts outside the courtroom, always in the presence of witnesses, and question why they were agreeing with the developer’s experts.

Jake Cassar et al at the foot of Bambara's Grand Mother Tree, thought to be over a 1000 years old - Copy

Jake Cassar at the foot of Bambara’s 1000 year old Grandmother Tree.

Now I’m no expert on body language, but I strongly feel my presence was not at all appreciated by anyone in the Courtroom. I was soon joined in Court by some Aboriginal and Maori friends who were quite well versed in these sorts of proceedings, and that’s when things started to get interesting.

Andy:  “Interesting”? How so?

Probably the most memorable moment in Court is when the CEO of our local Aboriginal Land Council took to the stand and spent more time speaking about how the land could be developed as opposed to why it shouldn’t. He even ended with a statement  to the effect of “Our Land Council is the richest land Council in the State. We don’t need any more land.” I couldn’t believe this was coming from the CEO of the  Aboriginal Land Council. I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t see how that closing statement could be helpful to the cause.”

Outside the courtroom, I would calmly and politely ask the experts who claimed to be against the development questions like “Are you aware of the high conservation value of Bambara due to the incredibly high number of threatened species and rich cultural heritage?” to which they would answer “Yes I am” and I would respond with “Then why would you agree to the area being bulldozed?”… “Who in Council has told you to support this development?”… and “With respect, it looks very much like you are in bed with the developers. Is that the case?”

Generally my questions weren’t well received, so I started working my way up the food chain,  contacting everyone I could in the State Government departments whose job is meant  to be protecting the environment. I would basically find out who could possibly help me and I would ring them with a pen and paper in hand and ask them pre-prepared questions about  how we could stop this development going ahead. I was surprised how much I was learning and that when I spoke passionately but respectfully to the bureaucrats, and armed with a good amount of accurate information on  the threatened species and cultural heritage, that some of them were really quite helpful and freely offered useful information. I also joined Facebook and with the help of a friend started the group “Save the Sacred Land at Kariong”.

I took to social media like a duck to water and before you knew it our Facebook group had over 1000 members, and we now have over 4,400. I was not backwards in coming forward with my opinion and was not shy in expressing that I believed members of Gosford Council and others may have been in bed with the developers and that the Bambara Court case was in their opinion a “done deal”. And after  expressing my views, the threats of legal actions started to roll in.

First Gosford Council staff started threatening me with legal action, then the developer Glendining, Minto and Associates, and last but not least the CEO of the Darkinjung Land Council had his lawyer ring me and threaten me with legal action. I thought to myself, “This is bloody perfect. Trying to silence me while exposing their fear of being exposed”. So I said to the Darkinjung Land Council’s lawyer, “So the press release will read like this mate:  ‘Aboriginal Land Council threatens to sue white fella while fighting to preserve Aboriginal sacred sites.’  That’d be perfect don’t you reckon?” There was a silence on the end of the line. I also said, “Listen mate, I’m not scared of legal action, I live on a property that I rent, in an old caravan I got for free, with my dog that I payed 70 bucks for. You’re not going to get anything out of me. I have absolutely nothing to lose.”

Bambara Festival

Community supporters at the Bambara Festival

So to cut a very long story short, we ended up winning in Court. But of course, there was nothing stopping another Development Application from being submitted and a whole new battle starting all over again. Through my research, I uncovered at least a dozen separate campaigns and groups working to protect Bambara. This battle had been going on for decades and 13 development applications had been lodged during that time. I instinctively knew that playing politics their way wouldn’t win this battle, and that  a proactive and upbeat approach needed to be taken to protect Bambara once and for all.

So since then, we have organized five awareness-raising concerts attended by thousands of people, probably a dozen peaceful protests, camped on Woy Woy Rd. outside Bambara for 89 days during a State election, had a massive amount of media coverage, and I have run in several elections as an independent candidate with Bambara as my main platform. I realized I would not outpoll the major parties, but I was able to use the community support to leverage a pre-election promise out of the major parties to “secure Bambara’s future”, a promise we’ve been pushing them to honour  for several years now, since the last election.

Andy:  So, with some wins under your belt, what do you think have been your biggest challenges in this process? And what challenges will you still have to overcome?

Jake:  Gee whiz, where do I start? I could write a novel about this! I suppose I will include personal challenges too. To break it down…

There is not much of an environmental movement on the Coast, and while things are getting better, it’s been really tough getting strong support from the areas you would expect to get support from, such as the majority of the ‘alternative’ community and the Uni students. But in saying that, one our strengths as a group is that we are not just a bunch of hippy activists, most of our supporters are everyday locals that love our area and want the best for it.  There is also many inactive environmental groups, rife with politics, but I suppose that happens everywhere. Some of these environmental groups rely on Government funding, so if anything, they have opposed us rather than supported us, in fear of being seen as biting the hand that feeds them.

Other factors are an Aboriginal Land Council that is often more concerned with expanding their bank account than conserving the land . It’s important to say that many of the people in the local Aboriginal community  do not  support some of the actions of the land Council and have been pivotal in pushing these agencies to get the Bambara cause to where it is today.

But the challenges  don’t just stop with Government and councils, in trying to save the land Ive been set up, attacked, defamed, threatened and a whole heap of other fun stuff.

A lot of money had already gone into making this destructive development a reality, and people were  set to make an enormous profit from it.

But the biggest challenge  is really having to deal with elected leaders that unfortunately don’t care  about the community and our environment, only big business.  It seems they’ll  do everything in their power to derail anyone who is a threat to them serving their corporate mates.

Effective lobbying and running in elections is expensive and incredibly time consuming, so while I work regularly to support myself and my daughter, this  cause has taken up the rest of  my personal time and energy  – time I could’ve spent focusing on  myself, my family and our future.

The “Boys Club” of politics is very real, and the people  already in “the club” will do anything they can to keep opposition out of it.  Politicians and their mates have tried to make me out to be some type of unreasonable, aggressive extremist. Yeah, your usual stuff I suppose. That’s just how they operate; when they’re challenged on actions they can’t justify, they attack the person to avoid having to deal with the issue. This  has cost me work, eroded professional relationships and even led to youth programs I have tried to start not getting support.

The past 8 years have been an incredible challenge, but going through this process has  also helped me in many ways. I’ve been challenged to a point where I really had no choice but to believe in myself and what I was doing, to stay focused on saving the land and helping the community,  and learning what I needed to learn as I went along.

Andy:  With those experiences in mind, is there anything you would do differently?

Jake:  To use  a cliché, I wish I knew then what I know now. I would just work smarter and look after myself a bit better. While I feel I needed to dedicate my whole being to Bambara, I let many aspects of my life fall apart, most notably some important personal relationships.

Andy:  So we talked a little about your challenges. What have been the  biggest strengths in your campaign? What makes you  believe so strongly in what you’re doing?

Bambara - 80 years of community resistance

80 years on, the community is still fighting for Bambara…

Jake:  As I said earlier, I believe the fact that we are not a small clicky group of activists, rather an entire community (and our supportive neighbours) owning this issue, gives us so much strength. I’ve seen so many different causes that could have been successful fall apart through inner politics. I avoid inner politics by doing my best to have no “inner” group. I mentioned before about a lot of the opposition I have faced, but it’s really important to me to acknowledge all the support I have received also. There has been quite a few key people that have helped me to stay focused and moving forward, such as  the late Auntie Beve Spiers, who was the last initiated female elder of the local Darkinoong tribe. Auntie Beve stuck with me like super-glue and was a fighter for Bambara and other important causes, to the end.

Andy:  With so much support in the community, is there still a genuine threat to the land at Bambara?

Jake:  While ever the land is in private ownership, there is a risk. Even within a  National Park I suppose there is a risk of the Government trying to have the  land developed or mined, but declaring the area  a National Park is  the best option for now. National Park status would  ensure the land is officially  recognized for its ecological and historical value.

Andy:  Wake Up World  has followed  the study of the disputed Kariong Egyptian Hieroglyphs quite closely. What’s your take on the hieroglyphs?

Jake:  I first saw the ‘glyphs when I was about 12. I’ve always found them fascinating and enjoy taking friends to the site. Unfortunately the dispute over whether the  ‘glyphs are genuine has been used to try to discredit me and this  cause for a few years in the very start, with some people saying “This is all about Jake Cassar and the fake Egyptian Hieroglyphs”, which of course it wasn’t to me, or the community. My focus has always been protecting the ecological and cultural virtues of Bambara, like the threatened native species and the sacred Aboriginal sites.  In saying that, the ‘glyphs are a part of what make the area unique, and while they are protected within the National Park, we should not look at any of this incredible area in isolation.

Andy:  When we were speaking earlier, you mentioned Liberal State Member, Chris Holstein. What is your relationship with Mr. Holstein like?

Jake:  Chris Holstein is a passionate politician who has accomplished a fair bit for our area. In toeing the Liberal party line though, he has allowed our environment to be sold out and our most struggling locals to go without adequate services. We seemed to have the support of Chris Holstein at  the start of this campaign, and then literally a couple of Bambara supporters decided they would shout their views at him at rallies and since then, Holstein’s mantra has been that our group is abusive and that I’m a loose cannon. It’s not a bad strategy to deter people from lobbying him, and it worked with some but not all of our community. But using this kind of political strategy is bad for the community. In my experience, Mr. Holstein prefers to  contest the individual and not their policy or opinion, and that really gets in the way of making any real progress.

Andy:  Where are things at now with the cause?

Jake:  We are winning, but to stop now would be foolish. After years of respectful but relentless lobbying, we now have two blocks (out of 7) sectioned as National Park. That’s around a third of the land protected, but there is still over 100 acres of land in private hands. With great respect to those who have fought for Bambara before us, we have accomplished more in a few years than others were able to do in literally decades. The difference is now, we have political and community momentum behind us, and although they have not been fulfilled, promises for further protections were  made by Holstein and others at the time of the last election. It’s time those promises were fulfilled, and that’s what we’re going to see happen here.

Andy:  Is the State Government the only roadblock, or do  the land owners also pose challenges in this?

Jake:  Regarding the land owners, I believe they  want to do the right thing but have found themselves in a situation  that should never have happened in the first place.  I have always maintained that the land owners should be treated fairly and given a reasonable financial offer for land that they purchased with their presumably hard-earned money. I feel the responsibility falls on Gosford Council and the State Government for zoning the middle of our National Park to allow all sorts of developments. They zoned Bambara to allow housing developments, Bed and Breakfast accommodation and even for agricultural purposes in that area, which would mean a  development in Bambara would be one of the biggest within any National Park in the State.

Bambara 4 National Park

Jake Cassar leading the ‘Bambara 4 National Park’ event.

So now the Government says the land is unworkable for development. If this so, they should admit a mistake was made with very inappropriate zoning, give the land owners a fair price to buy back the land, and be done with it.

Andy:  What can people do to help further the cause?

Jake:  I thought you’d never ask! If supporters of Wake Up World could please get as many people as they can to send an email and make a phone call to the Liberal State Member for Gosford, Chris Holstein, and the Minister for the Environment, Rob Stokes, that would be really helpful. We only have a few weeks to get the Government to protect Bambara as they promised before the last State election, and we need all hands on deck to do it.

Leading Grass-Roots Reform

After meeting Jake Cassar for this interview, what is immediately obvious is that, with Jake, what you get is what you see. Unlike most aspiring political candidates, who build their life’s work around their election campaign, he has built an election platform around the goals of his life’s work. When he speaks, he speaks from experience.

A seasoned community advocate, youth worker and environmentalist, Cassar has a long record of placing practical environmental and community  causes as the front of the electoral agenda.  Over the past 8 years Cassar has been directly involved in preventing several  environmentally destructive, Government-supported developments, and throughout his career as a community worker and advocate, has influenced Government policy on services for disadvantaged youth.

Once a “troubled youth” himself, Cassar has also been heavily involved in grass-roots charities for over a decade, and has organised and performed at countless  events that raise awareness and funds to support important organisations in his community, led challenged youth programs, and provided ongoing support to homeless shelters, Lifeline (suicide prevention hotline), The Salvation Army, the Red Cross, as well as the local Suicide Prevention Network and many more.

With a record of environmental and community advocacy, his campaign is gaining support from a public disillusioned with the current political culture of corporate back-scratching and partisan game-play.  Distinguishing himself from the typical political contender, Cassar has built his support base organically, focusing on community and ecological interests and working behind the political scenes to hold Government to reluctant account.

While Cassar’s approach to representative politics is refreshing, he views his role within the current political framework pragmatically; as a tool for influencing Government policy, regardless of who is  elected  to Government. He understands that he faces an uphill battle standing as an independent candidate against the perceived might of  the major  parties, but knows he can achieve some positive and significant results for his community regardless of the electoral  results.

In politics, credibility is everything. With ICAC proceedings uncovering widespread corruption in NSW Government during the past electoral period, the interests of the Central Coast community clearly  haven’t  been a priority to  policy-makers  on either side of the two-party fence. Given the rising public distrust in the agenda of the  big parties, Cassar remains confident:

“Whether I am elected or not, I am really confident I can raise enough votes to ensure the needs of our community and environment are kept firmly on the agenda,  ahead of big company  profits. It’s time Mr. Holstein honoured his promise to secure the future of the sacred land at Bambara and showed some accountability to his community. Let’s bring the LIFE back to this place”.

Have Your Say

To support Cassar in his mission, please check out:

To have your say on securing the future of Bambara:

Please contact Gosford MP/returning candidate Chris Holstein and his colleagues at a State and Federal level, and politely insist that he honours his election promise to preserve the native land, sacred  sites, endangered species and waterways of Bambara  —  before the upcoming NSW State election.

[Please feel free to use this email template, provided by Jake Cassar.]

Mr Chris Holstein

  • Member for Gosford
  • Phone: (02) 4342 4122
  • Email:  Click here

Mr. Robert Stokes

Mr. Mike Baird

  • NSW Premier
  • Phone: (02) 8574 5000
  • Email:  Click here

Mrs. Lucy Wicks

Mr. Tony Abbott

About the author:

Andy Whiteley  is a former corporate manager  turned writer, editor and co-founder of  Wake Up World. An advocate of peaceful (r)evolution, Andy  believes we are on a necessary path (albeit bumpy) to a renewed social model grounded in love, transparency, individuality, sustainability  and spirit. Through his role at  Wake Up World,  he hopes to contribute  positively to that transition.

Connect with Andy at  Facebook.com/JoinWakeUpWorld.

This article is dedicated, with love, to the memory of Auntie Beve Spiers, the last fully initiated female Elder of the Darkinoong.

 


Wake Up World's latest videos