Written by Luisa Mitchell
Nineteen-seventy-two: it was a heady time for students at the West Australian Institute of Technology (WAIT)—now Curtin University, as we know it. For students like Andrew Thamo, there were plenty of reasons to be worked up and passionate about the world they saw around them: conscription, inequality and greed were only a few of the destructive forces abounding.
Thamo, then a young Social Sciences student, spoke recently about his years at WAIT and what his role as the Student Guild’s Activities Officer involved—and more importantly, about trees.
When were you at WAIT and what did you study?
It was Social Sciences. I think it would have been from 1972 to 1975. The degree involved studies in Sociology, Psychology, Economics … But about halfway through my second year I became a full time Activities Officer at the Guild; soon I wasn’t studying anymore, and I never actually completed the degree.
What did your role as the Guild’s Activities Officer involve?
It involved a fair degree of politics; organising speakers at lunchtimes, bands, films … we put on a couple of films a week in the Social Sciences lecture [halls].
Do you remember which films you put on?
I tried to avoid Hollywood as much as I could; 2001: A Space Odyssey would always be popular, and WR: Mysteries of the Organism was always a good one also.
It was a question of what was available, but we definitely tried to stay away from the corny, meaningless stuff. We were always trying to get people to think more—that was the point of having all those speakers attend.
Was this stemming from your politics at the time?
Yeah, I was quite left-wing. There were quite a few left-wing people in the Guild at the time.
What were the challenges that the left-wing members faced working in the Guild?
There was always a fair bit of controversy, particularly with students doing Business Studies, just as a rule. There was a whole thing about Dolph Zink, and whether he was sort of pushing for Americanisation [of the uni]. There was quite a bit of a stir about that. I remember we did a sit-in occupation of the Administration offices—I think it was over him.
There was a fair bit of advocacy on behalf of students, but that wasn’t done by me, that was more so by the Educational Officer, Bill Thomas.
Sitting-in and protesting seemed like a regular activity for you guys back in the day. Despite all the protesting, did the infancy of WAIT make the institute feel like a fresh start for education?
I imagine it was certainly a bit more dynamic than these days, because there wasn’t such pressure to conform and do well; there were plenty of jobs back then. It was the day of the Whitlam government when we were there and it had just been the whole anti-Vietnam thing, and that sort of put quite a tinge on it. While most students were keen on just doing their degrees, many did find time to listen in at [talks at] lunchtimes, and go to films and things like that.
Asides from politics, what was campus life like back in the ‘70s? Were kids hanging out at the Tavern like they do today?
The Tavern wasn’t huge, it came in during that period. It rarely attracted big crowds. We put on some Sunday sessions, but they weren’t huge either. UWA would have had more of a dynamic campus.
What about you personally—how did you split your time between studying, working at the Guild, and contributing to Grok?
I just let the studies go and got fully engaged around the Guild, and became a full-time employee there.
What was actually quite interesting relating to Grok was the experience of laying it out, knowing typesetters, knowing printers. We—Paul [Bridges], Val [Humphrey], and the others that you’ve spoken to—decided to buy some land together down south, and do the “back to the land” thing. But then that got us involved with confronting the reality of the wood chipping industry that was just starting up. So then we just swung into the campaign of saving the native forests.
As a result of that, we produced 30,000 copies of a broadsheet, which was basically just eight pages, and handing them out on street corners. After that the whole forest campaign really took off. It was just sort of bringing a whole new energy to the cause, because up until then most conservation issues were handled in a sort of blue rinse, polite or academic way. We then came out with a broadsheet that was distinctly left-wing [laughs]; it attacked those who were making the money [from wood chipping].
The other interesting thing that was happening was our work with the National Union of Students (NUS). We’d be going off to conferences in Melbourne reasonably regularly for things like that, for national workshops and such.
It really was the era where people were just beginning to become aware about the importance of conservation and protecting the environment. Was conservation the issue that you were most passionate about?
That passion sort of came towards the end, once we got the land for the “back to the land” project.
I do remember the Architecture students built a geodesic dome, and some of them had rented a place out of Maida Vale, and started growing their own vegies. They would bring out their organic ingredients and say, “look out our own food, how wonderful”.
But yes, the environment was a huge concern; but then so was the Middle East, oil, sustainability about oil … In fact, it was the beginning of the [discussion surrounding the] hole in the ozone layer and climate change; the issues around sustainability, and all of that.
We really thought then that things were going to change, and here we are today and we’re almost just starting to deal with it. So, it’s a big disappointment.
Yeah, it really is. Were the broadsheets you printed after Grok one of the ways you were tackling the conversation around climate change then, or were there other methods you tried to fight it?
Well, [the other thing was that] there was a Senate inquiry going on, and we submitted a report in which we said our current ambit claim of 10 per cent of the forest, which was to be put into reserves, and the rest was to be managed sustainably. Now we have a situation where over 50 per cent is in reserves, and the rest is not being managed sustainably [laughs]!
Somehow, we’ve got stuck in the idea that the only way to do something is to save it and lock it up and not actually look at the issues around production and how we use the forest, about what products we buy, and the energy being put into producing steel and aluminium …
I went back to working for seven years full-time on the forest issue, on very low money; just being a full-time activist. But when I look at the situation today, I think that things could have turned out a lot more sensibly.
It must be upsetting to feel that way after a lifetime of activism working in this field; but do you think there’s a spark of hope for people protesting man-made global warming now?
Well, one of the things that really radicalised people around Vietnam was the question of the draft, of being conscripted. I was looking down the barrel of going to Vietnam when Whitlam got in, and all that finished.
I’ve been thinking that what’s happening with the young people today is instead of the prospect of some of the males being sent off to Vietnam, you’ve actually got all of the young people looking down the barrel of a pretty uncomfortable life, unless something changes radically.
But what sort of gives one hope is when we see the stirrings of strikes and activism among students; you know, with the students protesting in Stockholm and Davos. I think that’s where the hope will come from.
Back then, the neo-liberalism and the greed took over, and even people who were trying to live more sustainably 40 to 60 years ago got a bit indulgent. The issues of inequality and climate change now are the same things that we were talking about then, but they’re coming into focus for the population a lot more strongly now than they were back then.
Obviously, things can’t keep going for the next 40 years the way they have gone the last 40 years. It just won’t happen because nature is going to slap back.
Yeah, it’s pretty inspiring seeing young people like Greta Thunberg leading kids in these protests. Should the Guild, as the rep for young people on Curtin campus, also make climate change a priority?
Climate change has got to be a priority. We’ve been lucky over here in this corner of the continent because we’ve had it pretty easy for the last few years, compared to what’s going on over there on the East coast, and what has been going on for weeks, with ridiculously high temperatures, and the floods and the fires. If we don’t do something about climate change, we’re finished.
Returning to your own time at the Guild, how did working there influence your career and your life?
I suppose it’s a bit of a case of the chicken and the egg. There was a group of us at the Guild with quite similar ideas, and we’re still friends and we get together once a year at least.
I’ve also carried on working with trees all my life since then. I mean, to be fair I was getting out of the city whenever I could when I was younger, before I went to WAIT, but being at WAIT projected me onto a path of going on to save native forests. Grok was definitely a part of that experience too.
In the years of campaigning, in which I spent my time saying, “stop, stop, stop cutting trees down”, I fell in love with a lady during the campaign and we decided to come down to the country and start planting trees, and to persuade farmers to plant trees. We’ve got a farm and tree plantations. We also started Golden Valley Tree Park, which forty years ago was a 160-acre area outside of Balingup, and we’ve been trying to get people to start planting trees since.
So planting trees is how you spend most of your time these days?
Yeah, today I’ve been out working down at the nursery with the trees, and down at the tree farm planting new trees—so I’m still doing it.
In December 2018 Andrew Thamo and his partner Dr Christine Sharp were recognised by the Parks and Wildlife Services for the 40 years they have both spent volunteering and servicing the Golden Valley Tree Park. They were jointly awarded that year’s ‘Volunteer of the Year’ Award by the State Minister for Environment, Steven Dawson.