I travelled to the Leard Forest Blockade in between Gunnedah and Narrabri fully intent on getting arrested. 82 people, including a 92 year-old war veteran, had been charged a few weeks previously after they occupied the Maules Creek Coal Mine inside the state forest and hindered the operation. The protectors were defending, among other things, one of the last stands of critically endangered White Box-gum woodland in the world. Whitehaven Coal wants to level it in order to get at the fossil fuel below, which when burned, will create rapid reverse photosynthesis and the perfect storm for a climate change tipping point. Maules Creek Mine, along with Idemitsu’s Boggabri Coal Mine and Whitehaven’s Tarrawonga Coal Mine, is poised to account for 10% of Australia’s carbon dioxide emissions, a feat that could well whack the hope of capping global warming at 2 degrees out of the ballpark.
A few years ago, farmers concerned about loss of water for irrigation, an increase in dust levels and the destruction of local ecosystems banded together to form the Maules Creek Community Council. The group painstakingly wrote submission after submission to the NSW government, all to no avail. Over the weeks and months that followed, concerned citizens from around the country started joining them at Camp Wando, citing everything from greenhouse gas increases to koala protection as their motivation. At first they camped in the public forest until the police kicked them out last February in order to defend the largely foreign-owned mining operations. So the protectors decamped 15 minutes down the road to local farmer Cliff Wallace’s property.
After an eight hour drive north-west from Sydney, I am greeted at the locked gate by Liam, a fairly conservative looking chap in a sun hat, checked shirt, long grey pants and sandshoes. He gives me the mandatory induction, explaining that this is a non-violent, non-hierarchical direct action camp. Once I agree to its principles of respect and co-operation, I am taken on a tour by a softly spoken, 27 year-old activist, who offers me a rollie; “It’s all part of the service”, he says with a mischievous twinkle in his clear blue eyes.
Camp Wando has been active in various forms for over eighteen months, supported by groups like Greenpeace, 350.org, Lock The Gate Alliance and Front Line Action on Coal, members of each doing their bit to slow down the ravenous march of mine. With scant financial resources at their disposal, their tactic is to delay work as often and as innovatively as possible. It is hardly the eco-terrorist cell that authorities would like the public to believe. Gorgeous young hippies waft by like forest nymphs and elven sprites. A rather conservative looking couple drink afternoon tea at a table set up outside their vintage caravan. There are T-pees and tents scattered among the tractors and hay bales, and in the distance, the wondrous peaks of Mt Kaputar National Park.
I pitch my trusty blue cotton A-frame tent under a pepper tree with an uninterrupted view of the range then head over to the kitchen bearing farm fresh eggplants to grill over the fire. Lyle from Black Duck country on the South Coast is all over the coals. A few months ago he was invited by the Gomeroi traditional owners to bring ashes from his country to help light a fire to get in touch with the elders and seek their guidance in this conflict. He stayed on to learn how to fight what he calls the “raping, pillaging and plundering of our country”. It is said that around 40 clay ovens, and other sacred indigenous sites, are in danger of being razed by the mine. Greg Hunt has the report on his desk but, as yet, has declined to respond.
Doling out the grilled eggplant with tahini and lemon drizzle turns out to be an excellent way to meet all the happy campers. Among their ranks is an assortment of furry woodland creatures, respectable mums and dads, even grandparents and young kids. And of course, local farmers like Rick Laird whose family has been working the area for 160 years and after which the Leard Forest is named.
I had heard Rick speak at an event in the city about how politicians, especially the NSW Nationals, had abandoned farming communities in favour of short-term mining operations. He explained how these invasive industries directly threaten our food bowl with short-term fossil fuel extraction and leave us with little more than a permanent dust bowl. So powerful had his talks been that people actually got in their cars and drove on up to lend their physical support.
Sonya and Bridget are two such women. They roll in to camp with their reluctant teenage children who claim their mothers are ruining their lives. Not long after arriving, they find themselves engrossed in the Non Violent Direct Action (NVDA) workshop being held in a spacious farm shed by a pair of forest sprites, the male of which wears a small lock in his ear lobe and several keys in his dreadlocks. There’s a big sign on the wall that reads ‘Thou Shalt Not Faf”. Faffing, it turns out, is the opposite of direct action and something universally frowned upon at camp. The sprites describe a set of situations and ask us to gravitate to whichever side of the room best represents our responses. Is locking yourself on to a piece of mining equipment violent? Non-violent? Effective or ineffective? The task initiates a lot of debate, especially among the reluctant teens, who are getting more engaged by the minute.
Afterwards, there’s a workshop on social media run by a 30-year old food security economist called Chrissie, recently returned from stint in Syria with the United Nations, and an activist from GetUp! named Michael who is on crutches after a nasty soccer injury. They explain the Theory of Change and how one can best participate in it through Twitter and Facebook. Among the audience is a guy that nobody knows. Rumour has it he’s an undercover cop, a police mole in camp.
That night, unbeknownst to us, Chrissie and Michael set off on a mission to enter the mine site. The private security guards have been replaced by a crack team of riot police and a dog squad, possibly after a tip off from the mole. They hear barking as they slide down the rocky slope to a ledge where a giant earth-muncher is relentlessly chomping at the coal-face. When it swings around and shines its high beam lights in their direction they are sure they’ve been busted but the muncher munches on, oblivious. They slide down another slope to the bottom of the pit and, as dawn breaks, lock themselves on to the mining equipment.
When the police hand the site back to security, a guard drives by on his regular rounds and does a double take upon spotting Chrissie, attached to a dozer by a bicycle lock around her neck. There is a pair of crutches nearby. The guard looks up to see Michael suspended from the rig above. He can’t help but express respect for their feat.
After 7 hours, they are removed from the site, Michael in an ambulance on account of his sore knee, and Chrissie in the back of a paddy wagon en route to the Narrabri lock up. Later she tells me she’s never felt so calm, confident and fulfilled as in that moment.
Meanwhile I am planning operation Bush Turkey. I’ve made 6 hi –vis workers shirts painted with ‘Go Coal Turkey’ on the back. During a workshop I conduct called ‘Dressing Up For Action’, I explain to the impettes that hi-vis is the new camouflage. I suggest we head off to the Boggabri Drovers Campfire 2014 where thousands of people are gathered in their trailers awaiting re-education. I have flyers that we can hand out from the NSW-based campaign I’m working on called Our Land Our Water Our Future, that give facts about how coal and gas are threatening our life essentials.
But there is an alternative plan afoot – a picnic at the mine’s entrance to demonstrate support for Chrissie and Michael. After quite a bit of faffing due to the non-hierarchical nature of proceedings, we decide to join the picnic then carry on to the Campfire afterwards. We head off in an unintentionally conspicuous convoy. But curiously the police don’t seem to notice. At one point we are held up by a trail of horses and carts slowly clomping down a country lane, currently being upgraded for mine trucks. When we eventually pass I notice one caravan is painted with the name ‘Gypsy’s Bitch’ on the back. These drovers are a radical bunch.
Deeper into the forest we drive, right up to the mine itself, where we pull up outside the entrance on the Haul Road. A few forest elves set about making sandwiches in the shade of a remnant eucalypt while others chat with security guards, whose numbers swell as the minutes tick by. A vivacious Queenslander named Haley wears one of my hi-vis shirts accessorised with a white hard hat and she walks her dog up and down the road. A truck pulls up and she tells the driver to go back; “It’s over! Coal is finished. You can go home now”. In character as a converted coal miner who had seen the light and was now helping other addicts kick the habit, Haley made quite an impact. The driver couldn’t help but laugh. After about a quarter of an hour, the police arrived on the scene but we had other gigs to attend.
The Campfire Drove was sponsored by Whitehaven Coal and the first couple I speak to there has been on one of the many $10 mine tours available to visitors. They say they were impressed by the rehabilitation efforts they had seen and don’t know why I’m concerned. I decide that they can’t be convinced of the mine’s many adverse impacts and head off to get myself an ice-cream. As I lick the rum and raisin curl, I see them calling me back over. “Give us one of those flyers”, the man says; “It’s just not right”. I am flabbergasted. They’ve done a 180-degree turn in a matter of minutes. If the mine propaganda was that easy to bust, then we had a real chance. Other people I encounter on the grounds seem to be in agreement – tearing up our farmland and forests for overseas profits just isn’t Australian. Eventually, a hi-vis jacket appears and orders us off site.
That night, a healing circle is held so that people can express their anger, fear, sorrow, and emptiness, and turn it into joy, courage, hope and fulfilment. One bedraggled man picks up the rock representing fear and says he wants to smash it against someone’s head. He is one of those inevitable outsiders who are sometimes attracted to camp. I get up next, pick up the same rock and talk about the fear I’d felt when four riot squad vans did an intimidating drive by the day before. Their intention was to make us all nervous and it had worked on me. I was a shaking mess. Now, I called on that rock to turn my fear into courage, and hoped that the man before me would likewise transform his rage into something more positive.
It’s hard not to be angry about the unfair state of play. Days after being buzzed by a police surveillance helicopter, farmer Cliff is still fuming. He had wrangled some campers into painting a heap of old tyres white and is heading off to the top paddock to make a helipad out of them. He wants the police to touch down on a level playing field for a good old fashioned showdown. I hop in beside him to get the scoop. “The Council wants to make it illegal for y’all to camp here,” he says barely concealing his outrage; “They’re all in it together, the police, the mine and now the Council.” We lay out the tyres in a great circle, each one of which is of great interest to the herd of young Angus calves that Cliff has recently purchased. What would happen next was anyone’s guess. But one thing was for sure, the forest defenders would always be creatively one step ahead of the police.
As I said goodbye to all my new friends, Chrissie grabbed me to ask if I could give her a lift home. She had already overstayed her welcome in the Narrabri Shire and needed to scarper ASAP. Our long ride home began when we were pulled over by a police blockade a few kilometres down the track. “Are you with the protesters?” asked the young policewoman. “The protectors”, I corrected her. “The protesters”, she insisted not knowing that a random rock had transformed my fear into courage. “The protectors” I repeated firmly. Sagely, she backed down and allowed for us to pass. As we drove, we began to plan all sorts of follow up actions, including a return visit over the Queen’s Birthday weekend with as many friends as we could muster. We even thought a letter to the Queen might be useful, urging her to get this wayward government, that puts foreign owned mining interests above its own citizens, under control. There was one thing above all we agreed on, and that was that there was no going back now. We had found our people. I may not have been arrested during that trip but there is a whole swathe of opportunities on the horizon of the sunset industry that is coal. And I can’t wait to bring ‘em on.