I met Juliet Le Feuvre, Healthy Rivers Campaigner Manager for Environment Victoria, a few years ago and was stuck by her depth of knowledge and deep commitment to improving natural resource management.
After initially meeting Juliet in the city, I was surprised to bump into her walking her dog in a local park. We discovered we live round the corner from each other and both like walking our dogs early in the morning. This created opportunities for unplanned, highly enjoyable chats which have kept me up-to-date with the happenings at Environment Victoria. But I’ve always wanted to know why she choose to dedicate nearly 30 years of her life to the environment movement? I was delighted when she agreed to share her story.
Nature is what feeds me and replenishes me. I have always loved nature and being outdoors, particularly near water. Water is the start of life, it’s really precious stuff, particularly somewhere like Australia which is a very dry place. I find the contrast between the dry landscapes and beautiful aquatic environments astonishing. I find it truly amazing we have wetlands at all.
The thing that struck me when I moved from Britain to Australia in my 30s was how much untouched bush there was. It was amazing to see you had areas that were not protected that could be protected. There were opportunities which were not available in Europe where there were hardly any wild places left. It was the late 80s and it was a very exciting time in the environment movement. The Hawke Government was doing a lot of world heritage work, there was a feeling conservation was possible. I’d never experienced that before.
My interest in Australian rivers was triggered by a camping trip when the youngest of my three children was two years old. We went to Hattah Lakes up near Mildura for our first family camping holiday. Our campsite was on the lake shore in a beautiful spot under the red gums. The water in the lake kept rising. We had this row of sticks which we moved every day as the water came higher. The campground was gradually going under water and it was not raining, there was no flooding in Victoria and I wondered, “What’s going on here?” Eventually I realized the water was coming down from a flood event hundreds of kilometres away in NSW. This was a pretty unfamiliar type of river system. In Europe, rivers don’t work like that.
I never imagined I would build a career as a rivers campaigner in my 50s. I’ve had a pretty unconventional career path. After I studied zoology at Cambridge, I had all sorts of jobs from teaching to working on a farm and home decorating. When I arrived in Australia, I started volunteering for environment organisations. While I was volunteering at the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), I got involved in the campaign to halt the Jabiluka uranium mine in the Northern Territory. It was a full on period with blockade buses going up and people getting arrested. It was all new to me. I hung around as a volunteer at ACF, made myself indispensable and eventually they gave me a job.
The most difficult part of my current role is persuading people that just because a river has water in it, doesn’t mean it’s in good health. In Australia, without man-made intervention, our rivers would either be in flood or virtually dried up, there is not a lot of in between. What we’ve done with all the dams is make a lot of in between. People don’t understand, they think if it’s got water in it, it’s fine. If it weren’t for the dams, the Murray River would be dry right now and there wouldn’t be anything the matter with that.
I find the crunch I’ve identified between climate change and population growth truly scary. There is less water coming in to our rivers and more demand for water going out. You have two really strong pressures colliding and the jam in the sandwich is the natural environment. I am really concerned, but I don’t think it’s hopeless. If we are smart enough and we care enough and we put a bit more money into it, we can come up with the solutions.
Businesses are now facing community pressure to make positive change and this is creating opportunities. The traditional environment movement path is to jump up and down and say “You are damaging the environment,” until something changes, but that’s not necessarily going to happen. You need more elements in the mix so we are forging new and different partnerships to create change and build a level of support for the environment the politicians can’t ignore.
Visit Environment Victoria for more information.
© Matilda Bowra 2016