Forty Days and Forty Nights

If this latest blog post seems a little late, it is because of how busy the camp has been over the last two weeks!

Visitors to and from camp have been filling the air with the sounds of guitars, didgeridoos, drums and even a trumpet, but without wanting to take away from the atmosphere this brings to camp, no human-crafted instrument can take away from the extraordinarily harmonious tones of the woodswallows, honey-eaters, parrots, warblers, owls, lorikeets, robins, parrots and the gamut of birds spread throughout the thousands of hectares of threat, sometimes making us forget the ever-present drone of mine equipment.

It was those birds that brought 84-year-old birdwatcher Russ Watts, a Member of the Order of Australia, to chain himself to the gates of the haul road leading out of the Idemitsu Boggabri coal mine, stopping output of coal for almost six hours last Tuesday, the 5th of September. Russ told the local newspaper, “It seems that there are no areas that are off-limits to coal mining companies and that even our last, most precious wild places are up for grabs.” Russ was far from alone in his protest – around 20 local community members and supporters joined him in their protest against Idemitsu. The federal environment minister, Tony Burke, will be making a decision at the end of October about whether the Boggabri mine expansion will have an unacceptable impact on the endangered Box Gum ecological communities where these birds roam free and whether the mine should be approved. Seems like a straightforward decision to us.

It was the second day of action here in Leard Forest after two people suspended a large banner from the side of the Boggabri coal crusher the day before, and Wednesday and Thursday brought more actions against the expansion of coal infrastructure in the Hunter Valley. A man perched on top of a high tripod stopped work on the construction of the Hunter8 Minimbah Third Bank rail project, a new rail line being built by the tax-payer specifically for the benefit of coal corporations. Spin doctor Nikki Williams, CEO of the Australian Coal Association, hit back at the protest, saying that the rail line is not taxpayer-funded because the coal industry pays access fees. It’s a bit like saying that a commuter built the CityRail network because they pay for rail tickets. The following day, two climbers climbed a tall crane at the construction site of the third coal terminal expansion project in Newcastle.

All of this information was coming to us through our solar-powered capacity to tap into the Twitterverse, and Thursday brought wild winds to the northwest, with a total fire ban declared for the region affecting our beloved camp. For the first time since day one, the fire had to be put out. Once the fire ban was lifted the fire could be restarted from its ashes and some gentler winds from our bushman Muzz. Thursday was also a day of celebration in the camp as the Land and Environment Court granted an injunction in favour of the residents of Fullerton Cove trying to protect their community and Newcastle’s water supply from coal-seam gas drilling by Dart Energy, who also hold a Petroleum Exploration Licence for the Maules Creek area.

Friday was Threatened Species Day and by this day our numbers had swelled to over a dozen campers. As night fell, the spotlights came out for a bit of koala-spotting. It was a bit of a stab in the dark because the mine claimed that only two koalas had been found in the Forest, one of which was relocated. The other koala was allegedly found dead. Perhaps it was a bit of a lesson in not trusting everything you hear from mining companies because shortly after the search party went out, their beams scanning the forest canopy, a ray of light hit a male koala munching on Pilliga Box Gum leaves, not too far from a Barking Owl, known to catch koala pups. The koala looked weary and contemplative from its perch high in the forest canopy, where the noise of the approaching mine grows louder every day. One weary koala, and yet – if we could find one koala after a brief scan in the bush, perhaps many more were to be found?

On Saturday, our visiting koala expert taught us about koala habitat and scat identification and we quickly moved off to the site of our male koala, who by that stage had moved to some unknown location, perhaps deterred by the peering eyes and photo lenses. We found more high-use scat areas, but our hopes of finding a second koala were quickly dwindling. Had the rest of the koala colony already moved away?

Undeterred, we returned to koala hunting on Sunday morning and after an hour of hunting, we came across another Barking Owl. Maybe this Owl would lead us to find another koala… Sure enough, within a hundred metres of the Owl, a koala was perched high up in the tree. Not just any koala, but a female koala – a Nutsy to pair with Friday’s Blinky. The local newspaper dropped by on Monday with Associated Press in tow and sure enough, we were able to quickly find the female koala again for a couple of shots. The koala must have wondered whether it had become a local celebrity – or maybe it was being snapped by intelligence officers.

Monday afternoon brought a new visitor to a camp, but a bit thinner and longer than most of the other campers, and a better tree-climber at that too. Goannas roam all around Leard Forest and don’t seem shy about hanging out next to the pit either.

This week the NSW Government finally released its strategic regional land-use planning policy. Before the last election, the government promised to protect parts of NSW, including prime agricultural land, Tier 1 biodiversity, strategic industries and sensitive aquifers from fossil fuel expansion (coal and coal-seam gas). This week the government broke that process by introducing a weak gateway process that doesn’t kick in until after exploration and is likely to lead to almost all proposed developments going ahead. Santos also managed to get its exploration license for coal-seam gas in the Pilliga renewed.

Forty days after setting up camp, we haven’t been deterred in any way from our purpose – to protect our health, communities, farmlands, forests and climate from coal expansion. Whether it was because of excessive faith in government, lack of hope, courage or moral fibre, only a small minority of people in generations past took action to stand up to the coal industry. What we are doing here is only part of a movement building around NSW, Australia and the world to stop the expansion of the coal industry, and in fifty years’ time, we hope to be able to look our grandchildren in the eyes and tell the story of how we helped to avert catastrophe. We hope that you can come out here and be part of it too. In the meantime, get together with some friends and find a creative way to pressure Tony Burke to knock back the Boggabri expansion!