I left my hometown of Mudgee at the start of 2006. Within a couple of years, the number of open-cut coal mines in the region went from one to three. While I probably would have considered myself an environmentalist at the time, I didn’t do anything to try to stop the development of these mines. To be honest, I don’t think at that point the thought had ever crossed my mind that you could.
Nor did many around town seem to think there were any problems with the new mines. A lot of people in town already worked at the one coal mine at Ulan, and nobody seemed to see the new mines as something to worry about. Most of Mudgee was apathetic, but unknown to me, the rural communities of Wollar and Ulan (where the mines were to be built) had been locked in a seismic battle – neighbour against neighbour, farmers against mining company, conservationists against government.
Having left town, it was only at a distance that I was drip fed information about the progress of the Wilpinjong and Moolarben mines and their impact on the local community. With pain and disbelief I heard the news that Wollar – the rural refuge for hippies and the place where my friends had grown up – no longer existed. The whole township had been excavated, tossed into the furnace and pumped into the atmosphere.
Then I heard that The Drip, the phenomenally beautiful gorge and aboriginal birthing site in the Bylong Valley, that I had climbed and played in and marveled at as a kid, had been leased to the Moolarben coal mine.
The full story of those mines and their impact on those rural communities is a long and tragic one that I don’t know enough of to do justice to. Sharyn Munro’s book “Rich Land Waste Land” is the best resource for hearing the voices of these and many other communities around the country who have faced the destruction of coal mines.
While I was living away I also heard that the community had begun to be less accommodating to the coal companies. Mudgee was outraged at the news that The Drip had been secretly sold off. A local campaign to save it began. A proposed fly-in, fly-out village for the mine was met with local opposition, forcing it out to the smaller farming community of Turill, who also didn’t want it but didn’t have the people power to stop it. I don’t know how much the people of Mudgee celebrated that victory, but next to a giant hole in the ground, polluted waterways and an entire village wiped off the map, it surely is the smallest of consolation prizes.
Of course, another thing that has happened since then in that region is the Eddie Obeid corruption scandal – where former NSW Labor resource ministers Obeid and Ian McDonald were revealed to have, among many other things, used their insider knowledge in mining tenders in the Bylong region to amass huge wealth through complex company structures that were fronts for the Obeid family. While the Sydney press trumpeted it as “corruption on a scale not seen since the rum corps”, the locals at Wollar and Ulan could only shake their heads. Whatever dodgy deals occurred when these mines were approved by the same Labor government, it was too late to undo them.
Let’s fast forward to a year and a half ago, when I heard that a couple of dedicated environmentalists were camping out in the Leards Steat Forest near Boggabri, NSW. They were trying to support the local farmers in their struggle against a proposed new mine at Maules Creek. For a long time now, climate justice has been to me one of the most pressing issues anyone interested in the future of our planet needs to be standing up for. But it was also the memory of Wollar that drew me out to the Leards Forest.
The first time I went to Leards, there were barely half a dozen of us at the camp while I was there. It was summer and brutally hot. We talked about doing actions but in the week I was there they just didn’t come together. Still, I loved being out in the bush, letting it heal me of all the craziness and industrial sickness of the city. We went on koala spotting missions, to try to prove what would be lost if the forest was bulldozed. I met and talked with local farmers, and with Sharyn Munro, who has traveled the country collecting the stories of those who have been the losers in the mining boom.
It was a year before I got a chance to go back to Leards Forest. I had stayed updated and tried to support the cause where I could, but it felt so good getting back to that camp and that forest, say hello to old friends and new comrades. In the time I’d been away, the issue had grown in prominence and at this point there were at least 20 people who had been brought out to the forest from all over the country to help out.
The bush was still there too, for now at least (there was quite a bit less of it to be honest) – beautiful and rugged, with its rocky soil, box gums and cypress pines, those huge sunsets across the plains, the star-filled skies at night. In the distance I could hear the rumble of a coal mine operating 24-7, but still that bush was working its magic on me again.
A blockade camp is a place of extremes. Even hitch-hiking down there, talking about the issue was measured, taking in all viewpoints and prefacing statements with “yeah, but…” On a blockade there’s no need for that kind of beating around the bush – it’s only greenies and miners out there, on opposing sides. For years I’ve heard police say “I’m only doing my job” as they drag you off or hold you in line at demonstrations. I’ve never taken it as a valid rule of ethics, but it’s a bit like that in the bush as you try your best to hold up work on the mine. You can look the worker in the eye – you both know where you stand. Both just doing your jobs.
But blockading is much more than what most of us call our jobs. Sneaking around at night dodging security to set up actions, sitting in a group trying to formulate plans. Reclaiming the sense of adventure that in our city lives of routine and busyness we only get to live out vicariously through the movie screen. Strangers become co-conspirators, ordinary people become heroes as we put our bodies on the line, resisting the destruction we normally feel so powerless to stop.
I interviewed a few people who were planning to get arrested for the first time – two women from Melbourne who were locking on to excavators, one guy from NSW who would be sitting up in a tree. In their voices you could sense the excitement. I not only heard it, I felt it too. In our lives where so much of our experience is mediated – the music we listen to, screens we watch, things we own – this time we were at the centre of the action, trying to create the world we dream of.
I went out to Leards again since then too. The camp had been evicted from the state forest, the Narrabri Shire Council’s ludicrous excuse being that it was due to bushfire concerns. But they had set up a new camp on the property of a local farmer, and kept doing actions, often with a wonderful creativity and sense of humour. People had kept on coming out, wanting to be involved.
That time it was only a short stay, and we didn’t have a lot of luck doing actions that held up work, but I still loved it anyway. We did work on the campsite, setting it up to hopefully be there as long as it will take. Before I left I went to a meeting at Narrabri, where 600 farmers met and talked about how they could stop coal seam gas exploration in the region. As I went back up north I was planning when I would next return.
The story of Wollar isn’t unique, there are a number of communities that have been decimated by mining and written off as just another expense. But neither is the story of Maules Creek. Across the country there are people getting together and saying that no matter what our government and mining companies might believe; our communities, our forest, our climate, and our lives are not something that can just be dug up and sold off.