My husband and I have just come back from the Leard Forest Blockade. We went because of a combination of total frustration at the lack of any meaningful action by the Federal or NSW state governments on climate change, and because we were outraged at the NSW Environment Minister’s action in allowing winter clearing of the Leard forest to facilitate yet another coal mine.
Sadly we didn’t actually get to see the forest. The beautiful grassy white-box woodland, the last remnant of the vegetation that once carved a swathe west of the Great Divide from Queensland to Victoria, is now completely blocked from the public by police. This remnant forest of only 8,000 hectares is listed nationally as a critically endangered ecological community and provides habitat for up to 34 threatened species, including the Koala and the Masked Owl.
The government has signed over 5,000 hectares of it for the development of 3 open-cut coal mines. The Boggabri mine is owned by Idemitsu, a Japanese company. The Tarrawonga mine is a joint venture between Idemitsu and Whitehaven Coal, and the Maules Creek mine is owned by the Whitehaven/Aston Resources merger, which as far as I have been able to make out seems now to have National Party and American interests. Mark Vaille, former Deputy Prime Minister and National Party leader is Chairman of Whitehaven, and Nathan Tinkler seems to have sold out his interests to American investors.
Between them these 3 mines will form the largest mining complex in Australia. They’ve been rushed through the NSW government development process even though a major water study and cumulative risk assessment of mining in the Namoi Catchment have yet to be completed, and Whitehaven have not yet produced their Environmental Risk Management Strategy.
We arrived at the gate of Cliff Wallace’s property Wando after passing a police road block at the end of the road. Cliff is a local farmer, and a member of the Maules Creek Community Council which formed in 2010 because of concerns with the mining, and launched the legal action to stop the winter clearing. Cliff volunteered his property as a home for the blockade after it was forced out of its original location in the forest by police last January.
While the camp was in the forest some actions attempting to slow the clearing took place, mostly road blocks. Since they were evicted the actions have become more sophisticated and include lock-ons, tree-sits and mass walk-ons. As the blockade is run on Non-Violent Direct Action principles, no violence is used to machinery, workers or police in the process.
During the week we were there, a number of local farmers came out to show their support and gratitude. Coal seam gas mining is threatening farms on the whole of the Liverpool Plains, some of Australia’s most productive farmland, and Whitehaven admit the Maules Creek mine will drop the water table by a staggering 7 metres, with huge implications for agriculture.
On the June long weekend, just before we arrived, over one hundred people came in what was called the Convoy Against Coalruption. On the Sunday, 50 of them left the camp at 2am, walked 12 kms to a site where clearing was taking place, stopped the bulldozers and planted trees. Forty of them were arrested. Another 50 blocked a haul road in Boggabri in a non-arrestable action.
Decisions in the camp are concensus –based, and t he respect that participants there show for each other and for their tasks is very impressive. Every morning starts with a meeting at which both practical and action issues are discussed. Tasks are committed to on a voluntary basis, and every job, whether toilet cleaning or cooking, had no trouble getting someone to sign up for it. Workshops are held by people with appropriate skills (while we were there a lawyer gave one on our legal rights when dealing with the police), and tasks like banner-painting always had plenty of helpers. There were special meetings too, like the one to brain-storm more ideas for strategies. As they say at the beginning of every morning meeting, this is a working camp. There is a lot to be done, and everyone, whatever their skills, can contribute
Although most of us looked somewhat scruffy – hey, it was mid-winter camping and we had to keep warm! – what I found as I talked to the folks there was how well educated most of them were. A number of the most dedicated were environmental science graduates. Professional people from many disciplines come to the camp, as well as folks like Bill the carpenter who Warwick helped with the office shed conversion. What they all had in common was their absolute commitment to doing whatever they could to take action, to slow down the clearing of the forest and the construction of the mine.
The first morning we were there Warwick went out with a group of others to look at a small State Conservation area adjacent to the forest, which is still accessible to the public. It took 2 hours for the group of 5 cars to get through the police road block, with 5 police cars on the job; all names and addresses were taken and the cars thoroughly searched. A few days later, on the day before the decision on the winter clearing was expected, a group of us went into Boggabri to demonstrate outside Whitehaven’s offices. Again our cars were searched
I had gone up prepared to be arrested if it would help, as at 73 I don’t have to worry about it affecting my employment opportunities! They told me it would help, because I was old and looked respectable – well, they didn’t say it quite like that, but that was what they meant! Apparently it would have looked good on social media. Three wonderful young women (all with degrees and awesomely experienced in the process of organizing lock-ons and arrests) worked very hard to find a suitable location and lock-on device, and a way to smuggle the device out through the police road block. However, it was not to be. Two hundred police suddenly converged on Narrabri. Five police paddy wagons drove up and down past the camp all day, and the police presence around all the mine facilities increased. So I had to leave unarrested, in spite of being fitted for a chain and well rehearsed in the art of going floppy so I’d be harder to lift into a paddy wagon, which apparently makes good footage!
By this time the news had come that Whitehaven, in response to court action, had agreed to stop the winter clearing, so some of the urgency had temporarily slowed. Still, as a field biologist who was also there said, it’s only a stay of execution for the forest and its fauna. If the company resumes clearing in the summer, the loss of habitat and lives will be as great. Stopping the winter clearing will buy a little time, that’s all, unless other ways, legal, political or economic, can be found to stop or limit Whitehaven. Given the strength of government support for the development, this will be a huge task.
I urge anyone who can make the time to visit the blockade to do so. It’s a day’s drive from Sydney, and if you’re not young and don’t want to camp, you could stay in Narrabri, an hour’s drive away, and just visit the camp each day. If you can’t, get better informed of the issues on maulescreek.org and follow what’s happening there on Frontlineaction, talk about it to your family and friends and especially, phone your local State Member’s office!
The night that we heard that the winter clearing would stop, the camp was visited by 4 quiet and dignified Gomeroi women. In gratitude for the work of the blockaders in slowing the forest clearing and attempting to protect their sacred sites, they invited us all to a special corrobboree the next week.
At 73 I had hoped to be able to take life a bit easy in these last few good years. But it has often seemed to me that folks of my generation have had the very best years of life in Australia, with free education, economic prosperity and no great wars. And now our country and future generations of Australians really need us to help, in this fight against the dreadful threat of climate change and the environmental damage caused by coal and coal seam gas mining. So Warwick and I are signing on to do whatever we can. I’m still hoping to get arrested before I die!