It’s 5am, Thursday 7th of February, and I’ve just arrived at Doubtful Creek near Kyogle in northern NSW. The scene is unbelievably busy, cars are pulling up and a steady stream of people are walking in. Dotted along the road there are small groups of people drinking coffee and talking with an excitement that hides the general lack of sleep.
The reason for this gathering is that a source down south has revealed that gas mining company Metgasco will be moving its drill rig to Doubtful Creek that day. The group of people gathering in the dark are anti-coal seam gas (CSG) activists intent on making Metgasco’s attempts as difficult as possible.
And this is not just a one day gathering either. There has been a permanent camp near the drill site at Doubtful Creek for around a month, preparing to hinder Metgasco. The day before, a month of actions at Glenugie near Grafton had culminated in a day long blockade stopping the machinery from leaving. A couple of weeks earlier, I had been at the camp on a rainy Monday morning when around 30 people turned up at 6am based on nothing more than blind speculation that there might be work done on the site.
The effort gone to this time was amazing. During the night a set of elaborate blockades had been set up. That old forest classic the tripod had been erected right in the gate. A 6 metre tall bamboo structure, the beauty of the tripod is that if any of the legs are moved, the whole structure will come crashing down, bringing with it the person sitting on top.
A tunnel had been dug under a part of the road, and a couple of people had locked themselves inside. Again, no vehicles could pass until the police had, with extreme care, removed the people from in the tunnel. Sitting just inside the gate to the state forest (the drill site is on private property on the other side of the forest) is a car, and locked inside the car is another person, with their arms protruding through a hole cut in the floor of the car, locked into a concrete barrel that had earlier been laid in the ground.
I’ve included some pictures here, and all three of these techniques are fairly common forms of blockading, but to those unfamiliar with this world I’ll give a brief explanation. All three of these models place people in precarious situations where the machines are planning to go. No matter how big a barricade you build, big businesses and their government funded enforcers can always get a bigger machine to smash it down.
But a human life is one thing they can’t just smash down. Life is the one resource that we all have, and the art of blockading is to put your body in the position that will be the most difficult and time consuming to remove. So locking yourself to something is good, but only requires a set of boltcutters to remedy. Locking yourself to something difficult to get to (for instance inside a metal pipe or into a block of concrete buried in the ground) is better. From there, the more difficult to remove you can make yourself, the better.
Back to the scene at Doubtful Creek, where people keep drifting in and the mood is celebratory. I have brought bags of food I rescued from a supermarket dumpster in Casino, so I bring them to the communal kitchen tent, where I grab some breakfast and a cup of tea. It’s raining softly (but threatening more), and I’ve had very little sleep, so I find a marquee belonging to some friendly strangers and sit down there to rest for a little while.
But it’s not long after the sun comes up that some less enthusiastic visitors start rolling in. Two busloads of police (did you know the police own buses?) arrive among other police vehicles. The convoy finds it pretty tough going even at the bottom of the road though, through a sea of bodies and a number of cars that seem to have been left parked across the road, leaving only small gaps that the buses won’t fit through. The buses stop, and a number of police officers pile out.
They are greeted by a mob full of people swaying and gently singing “all we are saying is no CSG”. I imagine it’s not their favourite early morning sight. Without using too much force the police begin to push people back up the road, and the group slowly co-operates, with a few stops along the way. The cars are only slightly more difficult. It was actually quite impressive watching a few police lifting the backs of cars to move them around. While the mob slowly inches up the road, a handful of cops walk around to inspect the more elaborate blockades up at the gate.
First they start work on the tunnel. Hastily created the night before, the tunnel is not as long as it could have been. It still takes a while for the cops, but with the aid of a couple of shovels and an officer climbing in and reaching over a body, the two subterranean blockaders are removed and the tunnel filled.
Next job is the cemented car (this type of blockade is usually referred to as a “dragon”). As a healthy crowd watches, sings and cheers, this proves a much more time-consuming task. I can’t remember exactly, but it was definitely took a couple of hours for police with an anglegrinder, a concrete drill and various other tools to remove the lady inside, who had by now spent hours in not the most comfortable position. A huge cheer went up as she was eventually dragged off.
While all this had been going on, watching over it all while knitting away nonchalantly was the knitting nanna in the tripod. The Knitting Nannas Against Gas are a wonderful group who (just like their name suggests) have been present at many of the CSG blockades and protests that have happened around the country, and while there they make their time doubly useful by knitting. Always yellow and black of course, the colours of the Lock The Gate Alliance that is the coordinating body for all the anti-CSG actions.
So effective had the blockading been that the nanna had actually run out of supplies during the morning and an emergency call had gone out for another ball of wool to be thrown up. The Knitting Nannas are a good example of the humour that has been a part of the CSG campaign (along with endless puns on the word “fracking”), and there had been lots of jokes through the day. As the police in their cherry-picker cut her off the tripod, somebody called out “oh darnit!”
The tripod was duly smashed down though, seemingly clearing the road. But there were still hundreds of people, who were in no rush to move, even when ordered to start moving by the police. There were more arrests, including local aboriginal elders, Lock The Gate head honcho Drew Hutton, and my friend’s mum. A guy in a wheelchair a number of times “fell” out, and was slowly lifted back in. Everybody else took care in moving as slowly as possible, as at least 250 people compressed into one slothful mass.
Militant protest chants had mostly been ditched, replaced by distinctly hippie songs (we were in northern NSW after all), and there was such a strong emotional atmosphere it was hard not to get caught up in it. A number of people around me were crying. The joking around had mostly stopped.
Eventually the police had pushed everybody up the road past the gate, clearing the path for the convoy of trucks carrying the drill rig to come through. Which they did at about 3pm, symbolically driving past the aboriginal flag that still stood waving by the gate.
It was an extraordinarily deflating experience. Try to imagine 250 people having their hearts broken at once. There were more tears now, and visible anger on a lot of faces and in the air as the previously happy atmosphere turned into jeers hurled at police and truck drivers alike. As I looked around though I mostly just saw people shattered and exhausted. As jubilant as the day had started, we all knew deep down that this was how it would finish.
Except it didn’t finish then. I left and started heading back towards Brisbane, but the camp stayed there, watching, blockading, being a presence. The next time I went back there, it was to a concert headlined by Xavier Rudd, where there were even more people than were at the blockade.
The resilience of the camp is amazing and should be applauded, but it is also only a tiny part of a broader movement, which in itself is representative of hugely widespread public disapproval. That evening as I hitched north, every ride I related the day’s events to was upset and supportive of the blockade. A couple of them even advocated more radical action than just blocking roads.
It’s hard to remember any other issue that has had such a wide-reaching consensus, from environmentalists to farmers, hippies to right wing media like Alan Jones, city to country. I once heard a DJ on the blandest FM radio station follow up a top 40 pop song with an anti-CSG statement.
Unfortunately though, the response from the government, or the major parties at least, has been to block their ears, insist on the (unproven) safety of gas, approve lease after lease. It’s only now, in the face of a federal election later in the year, that we are starting to see movement from the major parties, although it’s not hard (as Greens senator Larissa Waters among others have proved) to unearth quotes that show the hypocrisy and shallowness of these promises.
The concerns about CSG are many. For one, in the middle of the moral emergency that is global climate change, there are no excuses for us to be digging up fossil fuels at the expense of renewable energy. But of more immediate concern is the possibility (which despite political assurances has never and will never be disproved) of either gas or the toxic chemicals used for extracting (“fracking”) it leeching into the underground water table, rendering the water unusable for drinking, farming, or anything that involves a healthy life or ecosystem.
You can watch this video of someone lighting on fire the water coming from their tap if you’re not concerned about the safety, but of equal concern has been the response from the government, whose obstinacy in the face of public feeling would be notable if it wasn’t entirely predictable. The pursuit of mining royalties ahead of any kind of environmental concern is a symptom of the short term election cycle thinking that dominates our politics. The arrogance towards public sentiment just shows how disconnected our politicians are and how few alternative voices there are.
But things are changing. On Tuesday a bill passed the senate that included the impact on water as part of the approval process for mining leases. This was a demand of the anti-CSG movement. A NSW state government reform stopped mining within 2km of residential areas (again a result of protesting, and against the industry claim that CSG extraction is completely safe). Consider the 180 degree turn from politicians brushing off early concerns. These have been forced by the people, including those out on the blockades.
And yesterday Metgasco announced that they were pulling out of mining in the Northern Rivers (where we blockaded at Doubtful Creek). Even before getting to that, their share price had dropped to its all time lowest point, with the company putting some of the blame on protesters in their annual report to their shareholders. It seems they underestimated the resistance they would face. Even as so many of the blockades have ended in tears, changes are happening.
Why are they happening? I’m certain that one of the reasons is people getting out to the frontlines and taking action. The corporate and government decision makers are a long way from the dusty protest camps, but they can’t ignore the impact. The CSG campaign is proving that direct action as a strategy can make a difference, even when the concerns of a majority or common sense can’t.
The whole episode has been eye-opening for so many of us. I’ve seen so many people at the protests say “I’m not a protester, but…” We’re seeing the government refuse to follow up the concerns of the community they are supposed to represent. We’re seeing the police acting as private escorts for mining companies. We’re realising that sometimes actions stronger than the ballot box are required to achieve democracy. We’re realising that those in power won’t always listen unless you force them to.
There is a real and immediate need for all of us who care about the health and future of our environment to get involved in the CSG battle any way we can. We need to put aside whatever other differences we have to stop potentially irreversible damage.
But amongst all this need there is also great potential. If we do see a victory of the people (which I think the last few days prove we already are) and CSG mining in Australia stopped, it will also be an example of the power of communities and everyday people over government and corporations. And that really is just the beginning.