The torture and murder of more than 1000 wildlife rangers, tooled-up animal poachers in helicopters and the alleged collusion of Australian businesses in environmental destruction and corruption — it’s no wonder Wally De Backer admits to feeling a little overwhelmed by his rather idiosyncratic choice of charity.
De Backer — known to the world as pastel-daubed chart botherer Gotye — provides engagingly honest star power to the Thin Green Line Foundation, an NGO set up by Victorian Sean Willmore to support the work of wildlife rangers around the world and, all too often, provide for their families after they’ve been killed in action. Rampant resource extraction and increasingly professional poachers provide the threat to rangers, with their plight worsened by government corruption in areas of Africa and Asia.
It’s a complex web, but one that seems to sit well with De Backer. He is, after all, a Dutch-speaking Aussie who was born in Belgium. He’s also managed to crack the US market and draws comparisons to Sting, but lives in an unassuming small town on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula and frets over the number of dead koalas he finds on the nature strip.
De Backer has been involved in the Thin Green Line since its launch in 2007, with his subsequent fame both aiding the cause — he has contributed music to Green Line Grooves, an LP also featuring the John Butler Trio — while simultaneously robbing him of time to commit further to it.
“There is an industry of aid, there’s a lot of information out there, it can be overwhelming,” he told Crikey. “I don’t feel I have the time personally to work through this mass of information and process it. I still feel I don’t do enough. I wish I had more time to be deeply involved in it.”
De Backer, who seems a rather quiet, introspective soul, is also painfully conscious of the “Bono effect”. He says fame compels him to do more for the cause, even if others are cynical.
“I’m quite prone to being self-conscious about people being cynical,” he said. “People are quite dismissive of Bono, for example. Some people get to the point where they say ‘I just don’t want to hear anything from this guy ever again.'”
“That’s interesting to me. I’m aware it can feel a bit glib. But it shouldn’t make you fearful of trying to add your energy to something, otherwise that can become a bit of a cancer.”
De Backer met Willmore through friends before the Gotye persona was born. De Backer’s mother is currently teaching French to Willmore. The day Somebody I Used to Know hit number one in the US, De Backer was emailing his ranger friend about fundraising. It’s far from a mere feel-good charity PR stunt.
“I feel I can do something interesting and positive with this success. But I don’t think musicians should be forced into it.”
“I’ve kind of popped my head up from lots of other musicians and sometimes I think ‘yes, I can now afford to spend $3000 on those vintage synthesizers on eBay that I’ve been coveting for years’ but I’ve got more money than I’ve ever needed or wanted,” he said. “Buying property or cars or whatever isn’t where I find my joy.”
“I feel I can do something interesting and positive with this success. But I don’t think musicians should be forced into it. It has to come from the heart.”
Willmore has seen a tangible return from Green Line Grooves, which has already raised $32,000 thanks, in part, to regular on-stage mentions by De Backer before he launches into Eyes Wide Open, a 2010 track with an apocalypse-tinged music video of spider-like creatures scurrying across wasteland in a futile search for water.
But far more than $32,000 is required to support rangers, who often have to operate in near-warzone environments with antiquated equipment while their governments actively undermine them.
“They are on the front line of conservation,” said Willmore, who was recently appointed president of The International Ranger Federation. “Without rangers, we would’ve lost mountain gorillas 15 years ago. But they go on eight-day patrols with no map, no proper boots and no mosquito nets, so they die of malaria. They can go three months without getting paid. They are like the French resistance — outnumbered and outgunned. But they are fighting the good fight.”
The genesis of the Thin Green Line Foundation is an eponymous documentary which saw Willmore spend 15 months filming wildlife rangers around the world. “I had an AK47 pointed at me in Congo and met rangers who were tortured and murdered shortly after I left,” he said.
“There was a husband and wife ranger team in Zambia who were killed, leaving their children orphaned — we had to pay for them to keep going to school. I was ambushed myself a few times which makes you realise what they go through, but then I can leave the country, they can’t.”
Perhaps more troubling for the Australian government is Willmore’s claims of Australian business investment in environmentally disastrous and corrupt projects in Asia and Africa. Following undercover work by Willmore and others, as well as information fed to him by his global network, the allegations are set to air on the ABC in February.
“I think most Australian shareholders would be horrified if they realised what’s going on,” he said. “Some Australian and international companies are actively involved in the out-and-out destruction of the environment through land clearance, mining, oil pollution, clogging up rivers, the works. You don’t have to watch War of the Worlds to see destruction, it’s going on out there.
“If these businesses did any kind of due diligence, they’d know it’s wrong. But it’s easier to turn a blind eye. Shareholders will dump them once they are found out. But if you aren’t asking where the money from your investments is coming from, you’re part of the problem.”