by Ben Latham
For most Australians Good Friday is a day of peace and rest. But for a team of determined protestors, the day signalled the beginning of an eleven-day mass convergence at Maules Creek to oppose a proposed open-cut coalmine in Leard State Forest, near Boggabri in northwest NSW.
The proposal by Whitehaven Coal was given the green light by the federal government in February last year. Construction, planned to begin in January, has since been delayed by multiple protests and blockades led by the Leard Forest alliance.
This campaign has developed a spirit seldom seen in recent years. Concerned individuals are coming together to form an inspiring coalition between traditional land owners, farmers of the local community, environmentalists, religious leaders, and just plain citizens from across the country.
Canberra university students and professors alike have gotten involved. Environmental organisations seen on the frontline include Greenpeace, the National Conservation Council, Lock the Gate, and 350.org.
350.org is an international movement aimed, domestically, at mobilising individuals from across Australia to fight against fossil fuel expansion. 350.org Campaign Director Charlotte Wood explained why the proposed Maules Creek coalmine is a major environmental concern.
“Concerns include destruction of endangered habitat in the Leard State Forest, a questionable offsets program, impacts on the already constrained local water supply and desecration of indigenous sacred sites,” Wood explained.
For Wood and the team at 350.org, the final goal of the protests is not solely to prevent the mine from being constructed, but also to communicate the public’s growing concern about fossil fuels to the government and any other vested companies.
“This mine should never have been approved in the first place and the ultimate goal is to stop it from being built. But the goal is also to send a message to the general community that it is no longer socially acceptable to profit from destruction of our climate. Companies thinking of investing in new fossil fuel projects should be aware of the financial and reputation risks involved in digging up new fossil fuels,” said Wood.
Mass arrests not deterring protesters
During the mass blockade at Maules Creek in late March, 82 protestors were arrested while others received severe fines. Among those arrested was recent ANU graduate Benjamin Huttner-Koros, who was inspired to take action by other successful acts of civil disobedience both domestically and around the world.
“I’ve been active in different environmental groups, mostly on climate change issues, for the past three and a half years, but had been thinking recently about the use of civil disobedience in activism.
“New methods to achieve social and political change have to be attempted to make a real difference to reducing the severity of climate change this century. This campaign has city and country people all involved and working together to prevent the construction of this mine. It’s incredibly exciting and inspiring.”
Huttner-Koros’ arrest in March means his role in further civil disobedience is in doubt, but his commitment to fighting the cause is only more determined.
“My motivation to protect natural places and prevent new fossil fuel projects is just as strong. There’s a lot of ways to be involved without being arrested! Taking part in civil disobedience was worthwhile and I’m happy I did. I will definitely be going back to the protest camp for further protests at some point,” Huttner-Koros said.
Keeping the planet habitable is for true conservatives
In early March four religious leaders were detained by police after holding a prayer vigil and joining local protestors at the site’s entrance. One of them was Thea Ormerod, head of the Australian Religious Response to Climate Change, who, in an op-ed in The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote about the relevance of faith to the cause.
“You may ask how such a group could endorse anything so radical, but this is a well-worn path for people of faith….The movement to wind down coal-mining in Australia may be counter-cultural but it is the truly conservative one.
Its aim is to keep the Earth’s ecosystems more or less intact for those who suffer the impact of climate change in developing countries, for our own young people here and for future generations. Not a radical position at all.”