Lesa de Leau spoke about the life and times of Juanita Nielsen on 22 March 2005. Lesa is a Greens Councillor on Rockdale Council and the convenor of the Greens NSW.
Thank you to Lee Rhiannon for continuing to host the Juanita Nielsen memorial lecture, which honours the courage and determination of Juanita along with the courage and determination of activists everywhere. Juanita Nielsen disappeared thirty years ago. She lost her life defending the homes of low income, powerless residents of Victoria Street, Kings Cross, against the greedy, powerful developers and their decision-maker mates.
The plan was to demolish the Victorian-style terraces on the wide, tree-lined street and replace them with three 48-storey apartment blocks. Juanita rallied local residents and led a resistance that saved a unique precinct. But the price was too high.
Juanita came from privilege and could have easily enjoyed a comfortable life. But she chose to stand with a group of residents who were at the margins of Sydney society. She worked with them to stop the march of developer greed consuming their community.
Juanita’s campaign set a standard for protecting communities from rapacious developers that stands today. We wish she was here today to tell us about it.
Only five weeks ago, another gutsy activist speaking out against big landowners, was murdered in the remote Brazilian jungle region of Para. Dorothy Stang was 74, a Catholic nun who had helped peasant farmers to organise against powerful local interests. This is a vicious battle – the stakes are high: 1380 rural workers have been killed in land conflicts in Brazil since the mid-1980s.
Like Juanita Neilson, Dorothy’s sacrifice was not in vain. There is some optimism that international attention around her death has provoked the Brazilian government to act by protecting new reserves of Amazon rain forest. Although again, the price was too high.
The Washington Post explains that Stang was “accustomed to death threats, and she had drawn scorn from many in industry and government”.
These two brave women stand in a beacon category along with people like
- Chilean President Salvadore Allende who was murdered in a brutal CIA backed coup in 1973,
- Salvadorean Bishop, Oscar Romero who fell to the death squads, and
- Nigerian human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the Nigerian government in 1995 at the behest of the Shell oil company because he helped organise the Ogoni people to protect their lands and their health.
There are thousands of individuals whose names we do not know but who have stood up for their communities and have paid the ultimate price for their beliefs and their willingness to put their safety on the line. Every week, teachers in rural Columbia face execution from CIA-backed death squads because their commitment to improving the lives of the impoverished peasants is seen as revolutionary.
Although in Australian death threats are rare – notwithstanding the tragic example of Juanita’s murder – there are many of us that live with the “scorn” of the big end of town and their mates in Canberra and here in Macquarie St.
Bob Brown is one of the Gunns 20 being sued by the Tasmanian woodchip corporation because they dared to speak the truth about the ruination of the nation’s natural heritage.
The activist community in Australia and around the world is nourished by the example set by these great people.
Throughout NSW, there are 58 Greens councillors speaking out against overdevelopment and injustice. We are inspired by the selfless courage of Juanita Nielsen; and by the tenacious spirit of Greens parliamentarians in this place, in Canberra, Western Australia, ACT and Tasmania.
We are also inspired by the audacity of activists prepared to take a big risk for a big cause.
In March 2003, Will Saunders and Dave Burgess wanted to shout the message that war is an obscenity like no other. By painting “No War” on the Opera House, they certainly got the message out there, as well as being thrown into jail and landed with a huge fine. But sadly, the bombs still fell on Baghdad and thousands of people have died.
There is comfort to be drawn from the willingness of some people to put themselves in harms way to make a stand on principle. It means that the campaign for a more just and sustainable planet will keep going as long as there are people prepared to translate their outrage to action.
Someone else both inspirational and accustomed to the scorn of others is Jo Vallentine. Jo has had a life of action. She entered the federal senate 21 years ago and was often the lone voice on peace, disarmament and sustainability. Jo will offer us a vision of social change, an antidote to the somber memory of Juanita’s murder.