The recent Bulga Beats Festival was a warm celebration of community spirit, from a small town determined to show its strength and vitality, in spite of the existential threat it faces from Rio Tinto’s encroaching Warkworth open cut mine. If Rio Tinto gets its way, Bulga will be effectively swallowed by the coal mine, and one of New South Wales’s most historic rural towns will be lost forever. The festival attracted a wide range of performers from country music stars like Luke O’Shea, to performance poet Erfan Daliri, to the acclaimed Wakagetti Dancers. The performers were all there to ‘back Bulga’ and to show their support for the locals.
Anne-Maree McLaughlin, resident of Bulga and one of the fesitval organizers, explained:
“It’s a celebration of Bulga, a celebration of our community, a celebration of the local sustainable industries, with a view to a transition away from coal. A promotion of all that’s good in our area. We have beautiful wineries, lovely produce. A community that’s really close with so much history.”
Local residents have been fighting for six weary years to try and stop the expansion of the already immense mine. The mine, which could be clearly seen from the festival grounds (see map below), threatens to make the area unlivable. The residents have fought hard against the expansion and have repeatedly won in the courts; but to the dismay of locals like Mark Roser, the rules were then changed in Rio Tinto’s favour.
“We went to the Land and Environment court and we actually won. Rio Tinto challenged that decision in the supreme court – and we won again! Then Minister Barry O’Farrell changed the environment policy, making economic benefits outweigh any social or environmental impacts.”
Due to the change in legislation, Rio Tinto were then able to get approval for the mine expansion. Rosen sees this as simply unfair.
“When the umpire says you’re out, you’re out. That’s the Aussie way.”
Local resident Anne-Maree McLaughlin is also unhappy with the way Bulga has been treated by the NSW government.
“We’re not very happy with the government’s role and how they’ve stepped forward, changed rules, to suit big business. It’s the dollar that’s important to them, not history. We have one of the oldest villages in rural Australia, gateway to the Hunter Valley and they have no respect for it at all.”
The festival was started as a way to lift people’s spirits when things looked grim. Vahid Roser, organizer of the festival, explained the rationale.
“We created the festival a year ago, when the community was a bit down, a bit stressed. We didn’t create it as a protest against the mine, we created it as a way to bring people’s spirits back up and get the community back together.”
As in other areas, tactics used by mining companies have created tension and bad-feeling, as people are forced to take sides and decide on whether or not to, literally, sell out.
“That’s how the mines work,” explained Vahid. “They split the community. But at the festival we have both sides here. We have miners, locals (I’m seventh generation) and people who have moved here, tree changers. If we ran it as a protest, we would be upsetting the whole community, where as, we want to bring the whole community back together – even the coal miners. We want to put the spirit back into the community.”
The festival drew support from a whole range of nationally recognized artists. Celebrities donated artworks and paraphernalia for an auction. Luke O’Shea, golden guitar winning country music star, was there on the day to perform on the main stage, despite the scorching temperatures. Luke felt strongly about supporting Bulga.
“I think it is important, in today’s quick, money-grabbing world, to remind people that there are communities out here that are crying out for help. Help from their brothers and sisters whether they are located in the cities, or just down the road. The Bulga Beats festival is an opportunity to answer the call and to come and stand by your fellow Australians and say no to these multi-nationals who just seem to forget what the purpose of life is, which is to live in harmony and love… and just get into it.”
While Luke performed outside in the heat, other artists worked under the shade of canvas in a friendly tent area, strewn with rugs and couches and blessed with a cooling fan. On this ‘busking’ stage, Poet Erfan Daliri performed an energetic set to an appreciative audience.
“In a space like this, where they’re in conflict with the mine, I’m more than happy to give them all I have. At my own expense, at my own time. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be there.”
Bulga hasn’t given up it’s fight. Recently, local residents have launched another legal challenge to the mine expansion approval. Mark Rosen explained how they are appealing the decision.
“And we want to say, in regard to the approval of the mine expansion, to Rio Tinto, that you just can’t brush us aside. We are going to live here and thrive here and we have a strong community bond. So the festival is about making that more widely known. And we have a lot of fun! The response we’re getting – it’s so lovely. It’s getting the message out that we exist and that we don’t want to go away. We’re still fighting them.”
Map of Bulga and the Mine: