THE AUTHOR OF “CASSOWARY HILL” IN AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL LEVINE, PhD, HISTORIAN and AUTHOR OF “AFRICAN AMERICANS AND CIVIL RIGHTS, FROM 1619 TO THE PRESENT” – Oryx Press

Are there many places like Cassowary Hill in Queensland?

That rainforest hideaway – called Cassowary Hill in the novel and the home of its narrator – is a sort of Australian Shangri-la. But, Michael, if Shangri-Las are in short supply pretty well anywhere in the world, Australia is no exception. In this case we’re talking private, upland properties of 70 hectares (170 acres) or more, consisting of pristine tropical rainforest. Except for the coastal fringes, most of Australia is too dry for rainforest anyway, but the truly tropical form is entirely contained within a Wet Tropics bioregion in north-east Queensland, a region perhaps 400 km long (about 250 miles) and averaging 50 km width (30 miles). The human population of the far north of the state is barely 200,000, mostly in towns strung along the narrow coastal plain, but, in spite of the relative sparseness of human settlement there, much of the natural vegetation was quite heavily logged or, where not too steep, clear-felled for agriculture and grazing between the arrival of European and Chinese pioneers in the mid-nineteenth century and the advent of greater environmental concern in the late twentieth century. This is true of the Atherton Tableland where Tom Pryce-Bowyer’s Cassowary Hill is located at an altitude of 1,300 meters (4,000 feet.) Incidentally, that fictional location is close to a piece of the forest which I came to know in the late eighties, and then for fifteen months I lived a solitary life there in a cabin much like Tom’s.

Are such places well protected, David, or are they threatened by development?

I suspect that there are only two or three such rainforest tracts that are privately owned and legally constituted “nature refuges”, in the official sense that their flora and fauna are permanently protected. Admittedly, such 70- or 100-hectare pockets are merely microcosms of very large areas of unbroken forest and might not be biologically sustainable in isolation. However Cassowary Hill and the real-life model which it replicates in the book share a boundary with the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area. In 1988 about 9,000 square kilometers (3,500 square miles) – a substantial proportion of the extant tropical rainforests in Queensland – were declared a UNESCO-listed site under the World Heritage scheme (WHA), thus providing them with an impressive degree of international, national and state commitment to ensuring their preservation. Thus, since about three decades ago the unsustainable logging of forests in the listed area has been permanently banned. This means that a profitable and long-established logging industry has been locked out of an old-growth, forested area two thirds of the size of Connecticut, closing down numerous mills around the year 1990 and for a while depressing the rural economy of an area the size of England. This was a remarkably bold and responsible action by Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s national government, at the time bitterly opposed by much of the local population, but today the proud boast of almost all North Queenslanders.

In 1999, in a less contentious political climate for such legislation, a Biodiversity Conservation Act ruled that any economic activity within the Wet Tropics WHA must be approved in Canberra. To date that has given viable protection to rainforests not adjacent to human settlement, but conservationists keep a very sharp eye on places where new housing zones or resort developments are planned too close to the fringe of WHA forest. Even without further encroachment by developers, there are roads that necessarily pass through the listed rainforests, where cassowaries and other rare species can and do get hit by cars or are attacked by domestic dogs roaming from residential areas.

There are some formidable environmentalists who are celebrated for the watchdog role they play. Having written the first published novel featuring a southern cassowary as a protagonist with human friends and foes, I was honored to meet and befriend Liz Gallie, a leading hero of the cause, renowned as an indefatigable cassowary activist. Although the vulnerability of rainforest habitats means, one must assume, that we’ll need wildlife defenders like Liz Gallie to be vigilant as long as some of the region’s property developers and tourist operators try to bend the rules. But as more and more local citizens and visitors become aware of spectacular biodiversity and precious animal and plant life in the tropical rainforest, I feel we can be optimistic about the future of over 600 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, many hundreds of rare plant species, and thousands of smaller organisms from insects to fungi – some of which are still unclassified. I think it makes a difference that everyone from school children to farmers to Melbournites to foreign tourists can be won over to the cause when they learn that a significant proportion of all these flora and fauna are found in no other region of the world. They are thrilled by the wildlife they learn about, whether they are fortunate enough to see it or not, and feel some responsibility to help it to survive – which they can do largely by spreading the word.

Nevertheless, there remain undeniable threats to the fragile ecosystem, beyond those caused by human activity, such as are posed by invasive species and by climate change. So, to summarize your question in a nutshell, it would be foolish to say that places like Cassowary Hill and the bio-system which they represent are well enough protected, but some valiant efforts have been made and the pressures of human settlement and rampant economic activity are less extreme than they are in most parts of the world. The remaining tropical and equatorial rainforest areas in Southeast Asia, Africa and the Amazon Basin are being constantly eroded by the multinational forces of extractive industries, plantation agriculture and beef production.

Are the characters in Cassowary Hill activated by their resentment of this environmental destruction in some parts of the world?

Two of the characters in Cassowary Hill have first-hand knowledge of massive damage done to the great rainforests of Borneo-Kalimantan, on both the Indonesian and Malaysian sides of the border, and although their activism is channeled in another direction, they voice their conviction that the greed of concentrated power groups can result in a combination of crimes against both nature and humanity, perpetrated by corporate, political and military leaders. Sometimes the same leaders play two or even all three of those roles, and not only in dictatorships. Jack Tryvet, who in a former life was anything but an idealist, and a Timorese-American named Bia Moraes who is a celebrity photo-journalist, form an odd team – together with a few friends and allies – to expose individuals whose destructive actions are derived from all those malevolent forces.

Do you think President Clinton’s order regarding arms to the Indonesian military was related to the influence of the international human rights movement, which has been growing since the 1970s?

That decision by President Clinton to suspend arms shipments was announced on September 11, 1999, twelve days after the UN-supervised referendum in which the people of East Timor (Timo Leste) voted to be free from Indonesia, the nation which had invaded and annexed their land twenty-four years before. In those twelve days the Timorese voters were violently punished for making that choice, with thousands of bodies dumped in the sea or otherwise hidden. It was the last phase in a history of such treatment. Clinton’s announcement represented a 180-degree policy shift because, for the entire 32-year period of Suharto’s military-dominated rule, the U.S. had fully supported Indonesia, militarily as well as diplomatically. The Suharto regime had in fact collapsed 14 months before Clinton’s withdrawal of military support from his country. The number of people killed by his regime in 33 years, within Indonesian borders or on appropriated territory, is reported variously as between three quarters of a million and two million. If the international human rights movement had failed to influence U.S. foreign policy over those three decades, one could wonder why Washington’s apparent change of heart could have been brought about as a result of the humanitarian movement at precisely that point after the referendum, especially as there is a more plausible explanation. During the decades of Suharto’s military rule there were no UN officials in the country to observe and report on the atrocities that were committed, although foreign journalists, with fewer resources than those of U.S. intelligence agencies, effectively reported the facts that the U.S. apparently preferred to ignore. Sometimes they were silenced, as happened to the two Australian journalists, one New Zealander and two Britons working for an Australian TV film unit, who were murdered by the Indonesian army in East Timor in 1975, as was a sixth Australian journalist who tried to investigate the crime a few weeks later. At that time the governments of Australia and all her more powerful allies were shamefully loath to make a protest, though in recent years that record has been set straight. Human rights groups certainly publicized the real situation throughout the Suharto years and, regarding the first mass slaughter in East Timor (also in 1975), the American philosopher Noam Chomsky and various other noted academics, political activists, writers and broadcasters told the world that genocide was being committed, but it was evidently not sufficiently embarrassing to successive U.S. administrations to withhold their cast-iron support to Jakarta, including military aid, military training and arms sales. That includes the two-term Clinton Administration until its last 16 months. On the occasion of Suharto’s visit to Washington, the White House answer to press corps questioning of Clinton’s lavish and exuberant reception for the Indonesian dictator and his entourage had been expressed in these exact words: “He’s our kind of guy.”

So the big difference in 1999 was that the U.N. was there in strength, in East Timor, in order to administer the referendum, and so in a sense the whole world was able to see what was happening – making continued denial no longer practicable. It was a moment of sudden emergency for the Clinton Administration, because for the first time it was not possible to absolve the Indonesian ally simply by turning a blind eye to the truth. Incidentally, Britain and other allies of the United States had been complicit in this “blind-eye” behavior for many years, and the day after Clinton’s policy reversal they followed suit, the British withholding sales of a number of Aerospace Hawk jets to Indonesia.

The U.S. did not return to full support of Indonesia until it was satisfied that Jakarta had adopted a more agreeably democratic culture and, in the last year of the George W. Bush administration, Washington decided to “come clean” regarding some previously unadmitted truths about Indonesia in the Suharto period. Documents were released by the National Security Archive and, at the time of Suharto’s death, the director of the archive’s Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project said that the newly released material detailed “the long record of U.S. support for one of the twentieth century’s most brutal and corrupt men, [and would] contribute to our understanding both of Suharto’s rule and of the U.S. support which helped make it possible.”

I suppose there is a sense, Michael, in which you could argue that the human rights movement had reached the level of influence needed to affect geopolitics, and that is that what had been building as a movement of relatively unacknowledged, though determined, volunteer groups had grown to the point where its voice was being heard at important levels of the UN, and if the UN’s presence in East Timor was the main factor in Clinton’s change of direction, that could be seen as the extended reach of grass roots activism. I’m not sure whether I believe that yet, but I would like to be persuaded! The characters in Cassowary Hill who try to expose another U.S. president’s promotion of an ambitious, discredited general (to an appointment which would potentially enable him to do murderous damage) are testing the limits of an individual’s democratic capacity to “speak truth to power”, and that’s a noble experiment which human rights activists are continuously making.

How has East Timor been getting on since independence? Is it a multiparty democracy?

To answer the second part of your question first: yes the fledgling nation is indeed a multiparty democracy, and it has been fortunate to have some outstanding statesmen to guide the transition, such as two of the most famous nationalist leaders of its former freedom movement, Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos Horta. They and some others have been working determinedly to steer their people through the turbulent period that every young democracy seems to encounter, often taking two steps forward and one back. As in some other notable cases of recent years, it is only fair to remember that the entire population has been traumatized by long experience of violence and corruption. Now in its second decade, Timor Leste, as I keep trying to remember to call the new nation, has had complicated and sometimes bitterly contested politics, and it’s greatly to the country’s credit that they have sought help from their friends, Portugal and Australia included.

Can Timor Leste have economic stability, given its commodity-based economy, which means great swings in prices due to events elsewhere over which it has no control?

It’s a poor country that has been ripped-off for centuries, and, according to the yardstick applied, it may be said that 50% of the population is below the poverty line. One of its chief exports is coffee, a commodity that, as you say, suffers from price fluctuations. Sometimes that could be to the country’s benefit because a factor that can cause increased world coffee prices is a negatively unseasonal weather pattern in Central and South America, reducing the supply from the world’s biggest coffee producers. If, in such years, Timor Leste sustains average production, their earnings should be increased. Something that has potentially improved the nation’s prospects for future export earnings is the current development of a Joint Petroleum Development Area, in conjunction with Australia, in the Timor Sea. A 2005 agreement between the two countries (after a period in which it appeared that Timor Leste would receive an unfairly small share of the revenue) determined that Timor Leste would be paid 50% of the so-called Greater Sunrise gas field royalties. It has been suggested that this should amount to US$ 20 billion over the lifetime of the agreement, though I haven’t been able to find out how long that would be. Given that the population of the little country is 1.2 million, that promises to be quite a decent windfall, and perhaps will give them time and capital to develop their tourist industry or other ventures before the gas field runs out.

I was fascinated by Vinod’s story about the redistribution of work among Mumbai tailors. It sounds like a kind of informal bourgeois socialism. Does Vinod’s story represent common practice in Asia?

How charmingly you put that, Michael: I love the notion of “bourgeois socialism”, which conventionally might be called an oxymoron but actually is perfectly valid! In the same vein, I think you could also call it “social capitalism”, because the profit motive also drives it. I wonder if it would be fair to say that ancient business cultures, from the Ottomans to the Levant, to Persia, to India, to China, to the East Indies were all more democratic than European merchant capitalism, in that the vast majority of deals were made at the level of what we would now call “small businesses”. This is in contrast with the class-based, top-down system of, say, the City Guilds of 16th century London. On the other hand, perhaps in all the city economies of the Old World, including the great centers of Renaissance civilization, business life was more human than it is in today’s impersonal, corporatized economies. I think the difference is that in Asian cities like Mumbai and Kuala Lumpur (where Vinod and Tom observe the characteristics that prompt Vinod to tell the humorous story of the Mumbai tailors) the old, informal system is still intact, and the small businesses share their advantages, to everyone’s gain. In western stores, hotels and other services there’s so little room for the human touch, in comparison with Asian equivalents.

I remember that when I first went to Malaysia from an English boarding school, to join my parents for the first school holidays after they had set up home in the city of Seremban, my father immediately took me to an Indian tailor to be measured up for the tropical clothing worn there by Britishers, and then to a Chinese cobbler who drew around my foot on a piece of paper and measured the arch of my foot with a tape. I particularly remember the “desert boots” that the cobbler made – the most comfortable shoes I’d ever had. My father, who could be a stern man, was teaching me to appreciate and respect the skills and the proud, personal approach of the artisans, and in general a business culture that had commonly existed in England and continental Europe in the times of his parents and previous generations. The difference was that in the East the personal touch and the personal deal had not been discarded as uneconomic. I believe that the excellent tradition of the old-fashioned small-business and artisan class relied, far more than in today’s business world at any level, on a network of relationships, goodwill and informal communication. We can get a detailed impression of the English version of this from Dickens. It has all but disappeared in the western world, except in alternative and ethnic subcultures, whereas in South and Southeast Asia it still survives alongside globalization. Perhaps it wouldn’t survive without the spirit of “informal bourgeois socialism”!