Day 79 – Building the Case

One more blog post – please read to the bottom to find things you can do to help the cause!

Leard Forest, this beautiful piece of Box-Gum Woodland in the northern inlands, is not just the last remnant of natural forest in the Liverpool Plains – it is also a critical link for the biodiversity of the entire western inlands. The destruction of Leard Forest would break the link between the forests of the entire northern inlands, between the Pilliga and Mount Kaputar. What’s at stake here is turning north-western NSW into a dead zone, but our camp and the the community resistance to coal and gas expansion here represents everything that is precious – life, air, water and prosperity.

The last month at camp has seen the forest and farmlands in a whole range of states of life. Fresh rains that soak the soil, filling aquifers, soaking creeks, and relieving flowers, crops and drinking-holes. Dense fogs that bring moisture into leaves, winds that spread seeds through the scrub, and even frost and snow at the top of Mount Kaputar, reviving flows for the Namoi River. The mining and drilling companies pay little heed to the cycles that define the land, their only concern being to remove the coal-seams as quickly as possible at all times, frustrated only occasionally by weather events that make it too risky to strip the earth.

A few kilometres from camp is one of the favourite destinations for country-folk and townspeople alike, and even visitors from further afield – Dripping Rock, a waterhole fed by a waterfall spring that trickles or gushes according to the flows. Normally the waterhole provides fresh clean water to swim and play in, and no doubt in times past it was a vital life-source for the mob. But horrific news had come to us to camp, the water was not right. We quickly sped out to the place that we have been visiting on and off since the camp was set up, but were ill-prepared for what we found. Along the way we saw new exploration drill rigs in the lease area for the Goonbri Coal Project, which is likely to become a mountain-top removal (MTR) coal mine unless the insatiable industry can find its limits. The water was putrid, with a vile stench wafting out from the pool and gunk that looked like sewage collected along its banks. A multi-coloured line that exposed the presence of hydrocarbons stretched a few centimetres above the water’s surface. When a coal or gas company marches into a new area, it always guarantees that so many safeguards are in place that pollution events would never occur. When they do occur, the company protests that the incident only occurred because of human error, mechanical failure or an unexpected weather event. People being people and nature being as unpredictable as it is, such events should be expected. Whatever new measures are put in place, little can undo the damage caused by water pollution, air pollution or damage to lands which people rely on so heavily.

With all of this in mind, our aim has been to allow little excuse for the federal environment minister, Tony Burke, to approve destructive mine expansions in the area. He already has plenty of reasons to knock the industry’s plans back – endangered ecological communities, irreversible greenhouse pollution and (without wanting to insinuate that politicians make decisions for political reasons) the chance to make political capital out of the state government’s horrifying failure to meet the expectations of conservative constituents in this region. To all of these, we wanted to add Australia’s favourite iconic mammal, the koala.

The mine claims to have found only two koalas in Leard Forest – one alive, that was evicted and sent to an unknown location, and one ex-koala, which was probably unceremoniously dumped to return to the earth from which it came. Having easily found more koalas in casual walks throughout the forest, we were convinced that this forest is in fact a koala village, a stop-over in the biodiversity super-highway that stretches across the north-west, and with that in mind, organised a koala surveying weekend to prove our point. We were not disappointed.

Koala lovers came from near and far, from the community of Maules Creek to Tamworth and up and down the NSW coast, and under the supervision of a visiting koala expert, walked straight lines through different areas of the forest to collect objective data to present to the federal environment minister. After two days of hunting, our intrepid auditors found half a dozen new prime koala locations, with evidence of koala presence within the past few weeks, scattered through every corner of the forest. What’s more, each location confirmed the ground-breaking evidence recently presented at the Australian Mammal Society conference in Port Augusta, that Leard Forest shows that the little understood Pilliga Box Gum is in fact a primary food source for koalas. If left undisturbed, this forest could provide researchers with information that could save the koala from its untimely demise. If destroyed, that possibility would be lost forever. Tony Burke may well set aside matters of national significance like the loss of endangered gum communities to appease mining interests, but would he be willing to go down in history as the federal environment minister who cast a fatal blow to the critter our children have sung about for centuries?

Last weekend was play-time for children and adults. After a hugely successful open-sky screening of the documentary Bimblebox to local families on Friday, Sunday belonged to the kids. The forest was transformed into a playground, with treasure-hunts, face-painting and songs. Perhaps in the future, children will return to this forest every year to enjoy themselves in the forests that give us all life.

And through all of this, how are the mines going, you ask? Well, Whitehaven’s managing director, Tony Haggarty, was recently forced to publicly defend the Maules Creek mine’s viability in light of rumours in the local area that contractors have been diverted to other projects. Haggarty falsely claimed that the mine was only doing paperwork and getting ready for the mine to be rubber-stamped by the authorities. It’s a little bit hard to hide from us that the mine is in fact doing commercial-risk exploratory drilling, which we have been watching every day. And as the newspapers report every second week, the Maules Creek mine is a seriously speculative venture. This is even more reason to challenge the approval process, since mining companies often sit on an outdated approval for years or even decades until their financial position recovers or community opposition wanes. As for our favourite ex-billionare, Nathan Tinkler, his woes have increased as the Knight’s stadium orders him to pay rent, other companies commence asset seizure after failure to honour court-ordered debt settlement and his horse collection (including the obscenely-named Tinkler racehorse Maules Creek) is flogged off at bargain basement prices. Whitehaven’s shares have failed to recover from their August crash, and the price of Australian thermal coal has collapsed further to $83/ton. If anybody has an account with the UBS global bank, now is the time to complain to them that their investments in Whitehaven are too risky, to the planet as well as to the pocket. We are more frequently seeing mining trucks at the Boggabri mine sitting idle for reasons that remain unclear to us.

Here are some ideas to keep you busy over the next couple of weeks, for those who want to make a change:

* Tony Burke has to make a decision in the next couple of weeks on the Boggabri expansion and is set to make decisions on the other mines over the next six months. Write to him, call him, visit him, sit in his office and refuse to leave, write letters to the editor, organise events in cities and towns, and call on him to act as the Minister for the Environment at least this time, for the right decision on one of the most destructive projects he has had to consider.

* UBS continues to invest in Whitehaven despite other banks such as Noble balking at the risk. If you have an account with them, let them know how you feel and make your own decision about whether you want to invest in destroying Leard Forest and the Maules Creek farmlands. If you don’t have an account with them, find people who do, or find a way to get them attention that they may not want. We are looking to UBS to make the right decision on socially responsible investments.

* Come to camp! The more people we have here, the more we can do. Time is running short for the viability of the area, and this is potentially the most comfortable protest camp in Australia! (We get to have a lot of fun too).

* Organise events, like a fundraiser, film screening, forum or fun day. More profile on coal expansion in the Liverpool Plains can only be a good thing.

* T-shirts, stickers, badges, patches, banners – the list goes on. What if every community in Australia knew what decisions our politicians are making on “our” behalf?