By Flo Dacy-Cole
Declaration days tend to represent the most rewarding moments of the Coal and Gas Free Communities movement – a time to celebrate months of achievement, see the palpable results of collaboration and spend a few precious moments alive in the sunshine.
Boolarra’s declaration day was no exception to this rule. The day was affirming, fun and in every way a representation of the strength of that small but close community.
The enormity of the feat accomplished by the community of Boolarra should not be underestimated: Boolarra is the first town in the Valley to declare themselves Coal and Gasfield Free. For those unfamiliar with the context of the township, the Latrobe Valley is Victoria’s major fossil fuel producer, and historically the industry represents many of the jobs in the region.
This is all changing with the decreasing viability of the fossil fuel industry and the increasing community awareness of the adverse health effects that fossil fuel production have on local residents. And nowhere is this tumultuous political landscape clearer than in the land that surrounds Boolarra.
As we drove towards the township, the role that Boolarra is playing in the fight against fossil fuel expansion was crystal clear. Or should we say overladen with smog? In order to drive to Boolarra, one has to drive past the cooling towers of Yallourn power station, the Hazelwood complex and the smoggy outskirts of Morwell. Boolarra is right in the middle of the fossil fuel industry and right on the edge of one of the biggest industry related disasters that Victoria has seen in decades. The survey process yielded results of more than 86% of local people voting that they wanted their town to be Coal and Gasfield Free. To be so much in the thick of it and to make such a strong stand is admirably principled and incredibly brave.
The Quit Coalers arrived in Boolarra to a scene a lot like a community show, but with a bit of righteous determination mixed in. The Boolarra Ukulele Group was playing, the Boolara Coffee Cart (a highly successful community initiative) was being mobbed by the undercaffeinated, there was a sausage sizzle and artist and businesswoman Deb Levi was giving free airbrushed “Lock the Gate” tattoos.
The event was peopled by warm locals and supporters from all around Victoria. Many attendees wore their support on their sleeves, with one community member from Seaspray sporting a coat stitched with dozens of felt Lock the Gate signs, and one from Mirboo North in a bright yellow hat complete with it’s own sign. This is the sixth town in Victoria to declare themselves Coal and Gasfield Free and the movement is spreading, with over 30 communities about the undergo the same process.
For me, the highlight of the day was the community declaration. A tree was placed in the middle of the square, designed by a local artist, and leaves representing the Coal and Gas Free streets of Boolarra were attached to the tree. It seemed that the most enthusiastic leaf-producers had been children, and watching the kids of Boolarra flock to add their leaf to the story is both one of the most heartening and cutest moments I’ve had in my activist life to date.
The piece de resistance of the event however, was the World’s Largest Lock the Gate Cake. The cake took up an entire table and was probably the size of a small pony. There was enough for everyone present to have a slice, which to me is a very good metaphor for Boolara itself.