Two and a half years on the front lines against coal

I wrote this from Maules Creek in February for another publication. Since that publication still hasn’t come out, I thought I might as well put it up on this blog. Hope you enjoy it.

In August 2012, two people set up camp in the Leard State Forest near Boggabri in Western NSW. They were trying to stop the clearing of the forest and the construction of the Maules Creek coal mine. That camp has survived and grown through the last two and a half years. In fact, a couple of weeks ago, 300 people turned up to a six day festival of music and action called Bat Attack; and talked about starting Front Line Action on Coal (FLAC)  groups in cities all over the country.

An estimated 4000 people have come through the camp in that time, with over 400 people arrested disrupting work on the mine. It has survived evictions, corporate spy infiltrators, tragedy, and the harsh conditions of the Australian bush. Considering this is the first ever direct action blockade camp against a coal mine in Australia, it has been an extraordinary success.

It has carved out a space in the media and the nation’s consciousness that radical politics rarely can, turning tree-sits and lock-ons into everyday concepts. It has mixed conservative farmers with forest ferals, old with young, city folks with country. And for a lot of these people it’s been their first introduction to the politics of direct action.

Not that we should get too carried away. Despite all the opposition, the Maules Creek mine is now operational and shipping out coal. A huge gash has been bulldozed and excavated out of the Leard Forest. If we measure the success of the campaign only by whether it stopped the mine it set out to, it has been a failure. Yet few people who have been out to the camp could ever call it that. Besides all the other things I’ve already mentioned, the Front Line Action on Coal campaign at Maules Creek has changed the landscape of public opinion in Australia when it comes to mining. As huge overseas-owned corporations Adani and Shenhua prepare to set up mines in the Galilee Basin and the Liverpool Plains, they are being met with promises that there will be resistance.

In a country where people in radical politics often complain about the apathy of everyday Australians or the ineffectiveness of protest, we should be studying the campaign at Maules Creek to see how it has achieved all this. The answer of course is broad and has many facets. But as someone who has been out to Maules Creek many times and has followed the campaign virtually from the beginning, I’ll try to share a few points.

One of the reasons is the broadness of the issues involved, which has allowed it to resonate with many people. Climate change is perhaps the most pressing political issue facing the planet today, and one which is able to mobilise all kinds of people from all walks of life to feel a need to take action. But also at stake at Maules Creek is the protection of a critically endangered ecosystem, protection of aboriginal culture and the right to practice it, and the loss of farmland and water.

Another factor is that FLAC has always been a very media-savvy campaign. Helped immeasurably by a very brave (if also not exactly planned) action regarding Jonathan Moylan and a hoax press release, the camp has never been too far away from the media. Some canny and experienced activists have played a massive role in this, but a lot of it is the unintended by-products of sticking around long enough and building a strong movement. As the blockade has grown so has an extraordinary story that has captured the imagination – from that opening outrageous action, through mass walk-ons (82 people arrested in one day in March 2014), a 92 year old war veteran being arrested, 5th generation local farmers speaking out, a saga of corporate spy infiltrators hired by mining companies, footy players and country music stars locking on and much more. It plays out like an epic novel or a hollywood movie, with as many twists and turns.

The decentralised, non-hierarchical nature of the camp has been a real strength. While there have been some concerns over the involvement of environmental NGOs, the people on the ground at the camp have retained control over what happens there, with consensus decision making no less. It is this model that has made it the activist breeding ground that it is, because when people come out to the Leard they aren’t just told what to do and where to lock on. Skills have been shared and developed; from bush skills to action planning, media, artistic creativity, political organising. I’ve met so many people who have arrived at the camp with no history of activism yet are now experienced organisers. And always with a belief that skills shouldn’t just be kept at the camp but should be spread back to the cities and towns from which people have come.

But I think the greatest assets of the camp, the things which have turned it from a protest camp into a movement, have been the empowerment that comes from taking direct action and the community that comes from living, working and organising together.

FLAC is built not on the politics of words (there are enough of them), but on deeds. This has inspired and caught the imagination of people both at the camp and across the country. So many of the so-called apathetic, self-centred Generation Y have come to the Leard (sometimes just for a party) and discovered that politics can be something that you do. That your response to the greed and destruction of our society can be more than just throwing things at the TV. I’ve spoken to so many people out here that have told me the same story: “I’ve always cared about climate change (or the forest), but I didn’t know you could do anything about it. Then I came here.” In a society where so often activism is just another commodity you consume, the blockade camp has shown countless people that social change is something you can create, not just spectate.

And that it’s something you do together. Yeah, FLAC has a facebook and a twitter and all that, but the real action has always been at the camp, where you can meet people from across the country who have been brought there by the same things as you. All it takes is one mission through the bush to go from strangers to comrades. But there’s also the camp life – cooking and eating together, sharing stuff, talking around the fire, going through the highs and lows of chasing an improbable dream. It’s this sense of community that has connected people from across the country. As now FLAC action groups are being set up in cities all over the place, we see how valuable that sense of connection is. You leave the camp feeling invested; committed to this cause, this forest, these people.

You can talk about a world beyond fossil fuels, and you should. You can lock yourself to a bulldozer and try to bring it a little bit closer. But that world really starts to become tangible when you are experiencing the generosity, inspiration, loyalty and interdependence of a group of people working together for a better world.  Front Line Action on Coal is expanding from its base at Maules Creek. As we’ve already seen, it will be quite a challenge trying to slow down coal and fossil fuels in Australia. But its influence could potentially spread far beyond that single industry and open up new possibilities for radical politics in Australia.


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