Veteran environmentalist Federico Rossignoli once chained himself to a tree to help stop the damning of the Franklin River and risked his life handling deadly snakes. Christian Lagos reports.
While most of us busy ourselves with the business of life – getting an education, finding a good job, buying a house and accumulating things – there are some people who set out on a different path. Federico Rossignoli is one such man. Known to his friends as Fred, or Rico, Rossignoli was an environmentalist even before many were familiar with the term. At home on the semi-rural fringe of Melbourne, his tousled head of grey hair as thick as steel wool, knitted cardigan on top of a knockabout jumper, made it seem as though he’d just left the picket line. We settled in over steaming tea and stove-percolated coffee made not from the tap, but with rainwater.
Now 70, he’s the son of an Italian migrant father and an Australian-born mother. Rossignoli’s early years were spent in rural Victoria. Then, as a young man he worked in the family’s demolition business, but there was something else motivating him. “I didn’t like what I was doing when I was young,” he explained, “so I started supporting environmental causes, as I always thought that we should preserve our natural environment.”
This led to his being on the frontline in the blockade to save the Franklin River from being dammed by the Tasmanian Government in the early 1980s. One of an estimated 2500 protesters, he chained himself to a tree and put his freedom on the line, while much of Australia watched from their lounge rooms. Rossignoli shrugs about his role in this piece of Australian history. “I remember the abuse being hurled by the opposing side, but it’s what had to be done,” he said.
Abraham Valenzuela, senior maths and science teacher at Elisabeth Murdoch College in Langwarrin remembers the man he knows as Rico from those days. “I remember that over 35 years ago, Rico knew a lot about science and the effect that engineering was having on the environment”. Valenzuela continues: “Rico’s passion was the same then as it is now. He is very forceful with his views of what is good for humanity.”
More recently, Rossignoli campaigned to stop the spread of genetically-modified food. “I feel very strongly about this,” he explains. “Someone has to make a stand. There have been studies that indicate a mortality rate significantly higher among rats that have been fed GM corn.” This has earned him some powerful enemies over the years, with his website being hacked and taken down several times. Rossignoli’s opposition to GM food took him to the steps of the Victorian Parliament in 2008, where he staged a hunger strike sit-in, hoping to educate Victorians on what he considers the dangers of genetically modified crops. After some time, alarmed family and friends finally convinced him to end his hunger strike for the sake of his health.
Rossignoli has never been short of loyal family and friends. One such friend is retired academic and ornithologist, Ted Baarda. “I first met Fred in 1973,” he recalled. “He’s an incredible man – always fighting the good fight”. Explaining the importance of activists like Fred, Baarda continued: “Politicians don’t help society move forward. They only have short-term goals to get themselves elected. It’s people like Fred who push for just causes that make things happen.”
Rossignoli echoed this when he said, “it’s just like the Romans. Give the people bread and circuses and stop them thinking about the important stuff.”
But it’s not all seriousness for Rossignoli , who’s always up for a party, with a new joke to share and often with a new lady on his arm. None of them stuck around as partners, but instead remained friends. Maybe it was the thought of sharing a home with a multitude of venomous Australian snakes that put potential girlfriends off. For many years, Rossignoli made a living out of providing educational snake shows. These shows were not to be forgotten. In them, you’d find a barefoot Fred in an enclosure with 20 or more of Australia’s most venomous snakes.
Despite this, Rossignoli has only been bitten a handful of times and then he says, only because he got sloppy and failed to read the snakes personality or mood on that day. Mostly, he would shrug off these bites, but he does remember the time he was bitten by a deadly Taipan. “I realised that I could be in trouble that time, so I called the ambulance,” Rossignoli said calmly. “When I got to hospital, I had to tell the doctors what to administer, as they’re not used to Taipan bites in Ringwood.”
Another fascinating aspect to Rossignoli ‘s character is his gift as a linguist, despite not learning to read and write until he left school at 14. Extremely rare are the occasions when he meets someone from another language background and is not able to share a few words in their mother tongue. His understanding of languages is so great that he often knows more than native speakers. Abraham Valenzuela remembers being surprised when he first met Rossignoli that he was fluent in Spanish, Valenzuela’s original language; not a common occurrence in the 1970s.
Fred Rossignoli is a complex man of many interests, among those ready to challenge mainstream society, dismissive of material things, passionate about what each believes really matters.