On Thursday night at the Food Co-Op, an eclectic group of university students, Indigenous elders and local Canberrans met to talk and learn about Leard State Forest deforestation, which is currently being cleared by Whitehaven Coal to make room for Boggabri and Maules Creek coal mines.
Now, I can almost guarantee that every person reading this will have heard about a worthy protest against deforestation, mining or fossil fuels over the last few years. In fact, just by glancing at a newspaper once a month this quota would likely be exceeded. So it is safe to say that there is a real, and well-vocalised dialogue regarding the environmental impacts of mining and coal industries in Australia.
However, with such massive amounts of money on the line, it seems to me that the volume of this debate is being turned up, while the baseline facts and figures are being drowned out.
The media gladly reports on increasing acts of activism, and these stories are justly popularised as a mark of progress towards a more sustainable-minded society.
Once we move past micro-scale success though, and take a look at the bigger domestic picture, we will see that not enough is being done by the government in response to the voices of these people. In response to legal disputes against the Carmichael mine, a media release from Attorney-General George Brandis was headed “Government acts to protect jobs from vigilante litigants”.
The bottom line for the government consistently comes down to maximising economic benefits, which comes as a surprise to no one, but this means that the obvious need for sustainable action to combat climate change is being left to us. It has been repeatedly deemed too hard for the government to satisfy the needs of the Australian economy without mining revenue, and as such environmental issues are being set aside on financial grounds.
It is true that the Boggabri and Maules Creek coal mines will provide local jobs, as well as generate export income. Economically, and irrespective of ethical concerns, this seems a good investment by the Australian government. However, as we all know, there is always a catch (regularly an environmental one) when resource based revenue is involved. In this case it is the 396 species of plants and animals, including habitat for 34 threatened species, that occupy the half of Leard State Forest marked for destruction.
While this is obviously an environmental offense, I am sad to say that these numbers did not stand out to me amongst the current backdrop of huge global huge environmental destruction. Somehow we have become desensitized to the rapidly rising statistics of endangered and extinct species.
A quick Google of “global daily deforestation” will tell you that we are losing roughly 80,000 acres of tropical rainforest daily, and hugely damaging another 80,000 acres on top of that. Along with this loss and degradation, we are losing around 135 plant, animal and insect species every day, which adds up to about 50,000 species a year.
Such massive numbers are hard to imagine. Most of us would be hard-pressed to write a list containing 135 species, let alone imagine that degree of diversity being destroyed each day.
Whilst obviously saddened by statistics such as these, it wasn’t the biodiversity angle that brought me on board with the Environmental Collective’s cause on Thursday evening.
Instead, it was good old Uncle Sam’s short speech that really got me. As an Indigenous elder with deep ties to native land, Uncle Sam was not only more likely to succeed in identifying 135 species of plant and animal life, he was similarly experiencing the destruction of native land on a personal level. Within the 5000 hectares of forest marked for destruction, there were 11 sites sacred to the native Gomeroi people. Amongst the 10 that have already been destroyed are ancient burial, ceremony and camping sites.
Many of the Gomeroi land custodians are outraged that mining companies were legally allowed access to the land in the first place, since the authorization given did not represent their collective consent. In a culture where land ownership was never defined by titles and possession, there is often a grey area concerning who is an appropriate Indigenous representative to refer to.
In this case, this grey area was used to the coal companies’ advantage, resulting in an official on-site welcome speech from an Indigenous individual claiming to represent native land claims. With Native Title claims being rejected, and with losses vastly outweighing wins since the project began, the Gomeroi people, as well as a host of activists, locals and everyday people, are rallying together to save the only site left.
Frontline action is being embarked upon to protect the site ‒ a woman’s area where safe space has traditionally been held for the access and exclusive use of Gomeroi women. It is not just historically relevant sites being destroyed; existing cultural practices are likewise being taken away from a people with too little of their identity left after extended exploitation and mistreatment.
Remarkably, Uncle Sam’s attitude did not reflect the deep divide between his own native connection to the land and my own alienated outlook, as he professed “we are all tribal children of the same Earth”.
This got me thinking about the power of a good cause, not in terms of the cause itself, but for the incidental effect it often has of bringing people with vastly different backgrounds and beliefs onto common ground.
In the wide arena of activism, there are few causes that draw together more radically different perspectives than environmental sustainability. At this small meeting alone, economic, Indigenous, climate, and biodiversity concerns were raised, all voiced by Indigenous elders, university students and politicians alike. Although we were gathering for an urgent and distressing purpose, the collective energy of the protest was strangely contagious. With so many people coming together for a mutual cause, emotions were high, and all were directed towards the same end goal – saving the remainder of Leard State Forest.
350, a grassroots organisation fostering climate-based activism, is coordinating support for the Front Line Action on Coal movement by organising a trip to Leard state forest on Saturday 12th March. The trip will be focused on creating dynamic action at the Leard Blockade and people are encouraged to demonstrate through music and art as well as front line protestation.