by Chloe Aldenhoven
Its 11am, quiet and hot at the Poowong footy oval. Soon the cars start rolling in, and it feels like a stop-motion animation as suddenly the empty footy ground is filled with cars and their occupants rush to the shade of the clubhouses. A great racket rises over the hill, it sounds like the plane is early, but in fact it’s a group of Harley-Davidson riders heading down to be part of the 50-metre human sign declaring Poowong ‘CSG Free’.
Within a few minutes, someone calls out that the plane will be here, and the crowd brace themselves for the heat and head over to the marked out letters using their yellow triangle signs, the unmistakable calling-card of the ‘Lock the Gate’ movement, as sunshades. An overwhelming cheer erupts as the beautiful little Cesnar birddog warplane flies over the crowd, over and over again, taking photos and video of the community spelling out ‘WE R CSG FREE’.
It’s only taken Poowong 4 months to get this far. After finding out about the coal and Coal Seam Gas (CSG) licenses that covered much of Poowong, a small group of community members approached their local Landcare group. With their help, they then decided to hold an information night at the town hall to draw the community’s attention to the encroaching exploration licenses, and the grave risk they were posing to the local community, rivers, ground water and the dairy industry.
The CSG information evening attracted over a hundred people, farmers, business-owners, tree-changers and environmentalists, many of whom had heard of CSG and ‘Fracking’ but had no idea of the immediate threat to Poowong and the rest of Gippsland.
Calling themselves ‘CSG-Free Poowong’, the newly formed group proceeded to survey every landholder in the Poowong area with the simple question: ‘Do you want to declare Poowong Coal and Coal Seam Gas Free? Yes, no, or unsure?’. The survey process took a mammoth effort from a small group of volunteers, who sometimes had to return to properties up to 4 times to record their response. “It got harder the further we got out of the township” said group member Ursula Alquier, “you’d turn up at the homestead at a property and the farmer would be somewhere down a back paddock and you’d have to go search from him. It was really important we gave everyone a chance to have their say”.
After three months of surveying, and after reaching over 550 of the 600 landholders at Poowong, the results were collated. An overwhelming 95% of Poowong agreed, yes, they want to declare Poowong coalmine and gasfield free. The remaining 5% consisted of only two people who said no, the rest responding they were ‘unsure.’
The Poowong declaration is a very special moment in the increasingly inspirational story of resistance to unconventional gas in Australia. By being the first community in Victoria to make the declaration, Poowong have used a technique that has been spreading like wildfire across New South Wales, and is now set to do the same over Gippsland. The survey technique is much more than a petition. By declaring themselves ‘Coal and Coal Seam Gas Free’ communities are declaring that they intend to defend themselves against an industry that threatens to poison their water, air, land, animals and people.
This declaration has already been put in to affect all over the country, particularly now as communities in northern New South Wales have set up months-long blockades, refusing to allow mining company trucks, machinery and gas drills on to properties.
As well as fighting for the health and well being of rural people, communities, agricultural areas and the environment, Quit Coal also see the fight against unconventional gas drilling in Gippsland as an essential part of the fight for a safe climate. Industry would like you to believe that Gas is somehow cleaner and less greenhouse gas-intensive than coal. However, when you take in to account the vast amounts of methane that often seeps out of unconventional gas wells and the emissions created by the transport intense mining process, the greenhouse gas footprint is in fact the same, if not worse, than coal-fired power.
Communities in Mirboo North, Toora and the Sale region are marching down the same path to declare their roads and towns coal and CSG free. The race is on to protect Gippsland and the rest of Victoria from one of the most destructive industries the country has ever seen.