A sunny weekend in November saw Australia’s most progressive festival take place in the heart of the Nationals conservative stronghold. Over 600 people from all over Australia came together to voice their support for the local communities of the Liverpool Plains and their opposition to the planned Shenhua Watermark coal project. Farmers that have been voting conservatively their whole lives collaborated with first nations people, NGOs, environmental protectors, politicians and journalists to put together the Liverpool Plains Harvest Festival Against Shenhua on Breeza Station.
The area of Breeza, 40km South-East of Gunnedah has a population of less than 100 people, and the general store has been closed for nearly ten years, but the region is at the forefront of the national dialogue on coal mines. Shenhua wants to dig up 35sqkm of land to mine coal, with the plan being to export up to 10m tonnes per annum. The mine is totally incompatible with the surrounding agriculture, and will irrevocably destroy a highly significant indigenous heritage site, it has no social license and the opposition is loud, multifaceted and ubiquitous.
The festival was hosted on the farm of Andrew Pursehouse and the family ran farm tours throughout the event to showcase the fertility and versatility of the black soil plains. They grow corn, cotton, sorghum, barley, oats, wheat and even raise cattle. The soil is so good that two crops can be planted each year, and from sow to harvest a crop can go without rain due to the moisture holding capacity embedded in the soil organic matter.
Among the speakers voicing opposition to the mine at the festival were Senators Jacqui Lambie, Lee Rhiannon and NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham, as well as former MP Tony Windsor and a variety of scientific, campaigning and economic experts from across the country. Despite being personally invited by the local farmers, nobody from the National Party showed up. Neither did Malcolm Turnbull, or Mike Baird, who have both been vocal about support for the farmers but light on any real action.
The festival hosted a plethora of talks and panels, including a discussion on global energy futures and the economics of coal mining in today’s world. To summarise briefly, Shenhua will lose money if it goes ahead with the mine, China and India are moving away from coal faster than anyone predicted and Australian coal suppliers should actually begin shrinking supply if they want to be able to make any money selling their product.
Another talk covered all of the risks and unknowns associated with groundwater. The Watermark project will involve digging through an aquifer and during operation, 5 blast events per week. The consensus is that nobody really seems to understand exactly how groundwater works, but we know that the aquifers connect all the way to the Murray Darling basin, without which most of the agricultural land between Sydney and Melbourne would be doomed. The Werris creek mine, operated by Whitehaven coal less than 100km away, has caused drawdown of surrounding bores by up to 10 meters. Farmers rightly fear that if Shenhua goes ahead, their ability to irrigate will suffer. All of this in the face of an impending El Nino, that is likely to see the area face significant drought.
The most powerful session of the entire festival was hosted by the Gomeroi/Kamiliraay people, on whose land the proposed mine and surrounding farms lie. They hosted a talking circle, allowing everyone to engage and understand their immense struggles. It brought many in the audience to tears, hearing of their systematic abuse at the hands of mining companies and the utter indifference of the legislative structures supposedly constructed for their protection. They told their story of doing everything by the book to try and protect their sacred sites in the Leard State Forest, only to be met with the bullshit response that there was no timeframe for the federal minsters to review or respond to their concerns. 10 of 11 sites have been desecrated already, and the spineless pollies in Parliament have not and will not raise a finger to protect cultural heritage that goes back forty thousand years. ‘The gloves are coming off now’ the Gomeroi stated, to resounding and vital cries of affirmation from the crowd. They spoke of new found connections with rural farmers, who have begun to understand the value of cooperating with their community and raised hopes of a better way of life for all involved.
The main barrier that was overcome by the talking circle was one of great importance and massive spread. Not dissimilar to the discussion of the economics of the Shenhua project, people asked, ‘in light of all of these terrible consequences of the mine, how is it that the mine is going ahead?’ The Gomeroi have suffered human rights abuses beyond the scope of this article. The ignorant illusion that common sense prevails in Canberra has been smashed entirely. There is dirty, dirty business going on and it is up to everyone to work together on the ground to protect country. Whitefellas need to stand up for blackfellas, and we need to talk about this everywhere. They never ceded sovereignty of their lands, Australia is a colonial occupation, and it is still terrifyingly unjust in its ways.
Other things to mention, some groovy jazz, excellent food and the beginnings of a movement. Maules Creek was the line in the sand. Shenhua is going to be a powder keg.
Aidan Kempster is a writer who attended the 3 day festival with a busload of Melburnians.
Photo credit: Jeff Tann
People’s Climate March
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