A learning environment

Jodie Pall and Ellen Burke reflect on learning and Indigenous solidarity

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During the mid-semester break, the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN) took 18 students on a five-day road trip to Gamilaraay country in northwest NSW. We visited and learnt from diverse Indigenous and non-Indigenous people non-violently opposing the development of coal seam gas (CSG) and coal mining projects in what we know as the Pilliga and Leard State forests, and participated in some non-violent direct action (NVDA) of our own.

The trip took place over five days. After a lunchtime tour of the Newcastle coal port we spent two days at the Pilliga Push Action camp and touring the Santos-owned gas fields, and the rest of the time at the Front Line Action on Coal (FLAC) camp close to the Leard.

Environmental destruction by CSG and coal mining in the area has brought together a myriad of folks who have engaged in direct activism after exhausting legal avenues of protecting ecologically and culturally significant land. They constitute a mixture of Gamilaraay people and local and non-local environmental activists. Some have been around for a while, permanently or intermittently. Others, like the ASEN crew, for a limited time, keen to learn and contribute as much as they can.

Despite our freshness and lack of intimate knowledge of the contestation between mining corporations, governments and community groups, the activists at the protest camps were hospitable and had no qualms about sharing their wisdom and experience with us. We were grateful that camp members took time and energy to tell the stories and history of environmental activism in the Pilliga and the Leard. They must do it all the time whenever someone new enters the camp, and it was a testament to their belief in the strength of co-operative community-led activism and the campaign against the mining companies Santos and Whitehaven.

We spent our time at the camps swapping stories and planning actions. During the evenings, we were lucky to have scientists explain to us the ecological impacts of CSG and mining in the area. The verdict is that CSG is all bad news. Ecologist David Paull explained to us that the CSG drilling and poorly-constructed wells contaminate the groundwater in expansive regional aquifers, as well as downstream in lakes and rivers. As a result, bore-water is no longer safe to drink. A local astronomer, Peter Small, told us how the gas flares and lights from coal mines cause light pollution that obscures the night sky in Coonabarabran. This potentially renders the Siding Spring Observatory, one of the only “dark night” spots left in the world, useless.

Ecologist Phil Spark expressed how flora and fauna species endemic to northwest NSW are being critically threatened by the expansion of mines and clearing of the Leard State Forest. He also explained how mining companies can get away with clearing endangered ecosystems, such as Box Gum woodland, by reserving other patches of forest for the animals to evacuate to. Unfortunately these reserved patches are of completely different vegetation and support their own ecosystems, so can’t really take on the animals whose forest has been cleared. It is a serious injustice that mining companies are permitted to destroy critical ecological areas, especially in State forests where their integrity is supposed to be preserved.

The effects of Santos’ CSG drilling became more real when we were given a tour of the gas fields in the Pilliga forest where drills were so dense, they were often less than 80 metres apart. CSG wastewater spillages have caused mass die-outs of plant life. Where ancient red gums, green cypress and grey ironbark trees once flourished, the land is now barren, even though eighteen years have passed since the spillage. Tall gas flares are lit 24/7 at many drill sites, burning off a toxic mixture of gasses including methane and carbon dioxide that escape from the coal seam. The gas drill sites just scream ‘toxic’, if any politicians were around to hear the forest screaming.

The ASEN crew engaged in NVDA during the road-trip. Some of the crew led NVDA and ‘legals’ training to create a safe environment for people to do so. On day two of the road trip, in coalition and with the support of other activists at the Pilliga, we participated in two fun and successful actions. Sydney University student Peter Newall and University of Wollongong student Kristina Markos locked onto a water pump at Santos’ Leeward wastewater treatment plant, stopping activity for the morning. The Pilliga and ASEN crew protested at the entrance of Leeward, singing activist songs, playing cricket and sharing bikkies and tea at the tea station that we set up to offer to potentially cranky Santos workers. On the same day, Sydney University student Lily Matchett locked on with Indigenous activist Donna Bartlett to a flatbed truck destined for the waste-water treatment facility, holding-up activity on the site for the day. Despite being exposed to intimidation tactics by police and security guards, Kristina, Peter and Lily ultimately felt positive about their direct actions, because of the co-operative support from the ASEN and the Pilliga Push activists. We left the Pilliga on a high note after the successful action feeling admiration for the skillful way that they liaised with workers and security guards, and feeling empowered with new knowledge about the anti-CSG campaign.

Like a coal train heading toward the Newcastle Coal Port, the momentum of NVDA was unstoppable. In the wee hours of the following morning, now-legend Lily Matchett and ASEN activist Hannah Grant shut down and locked onto a coal conveyor at the Narrabri Underground Coal Mine, stopping 6000 tonnes of coal from being transported that day. This was on April 1st – an appropriate day to play a prank on Whitehaven Coal, the fossil fools complicit in catastrophic climate change, and to pressure Environmental Minister Greg Hunt to make a decision to recognise the cultural significance of Lawler’s Well to Gomeroi Traditional owners and protect Gomeroi country from destruction.

It was mostly wom*n activists who engaged in NVDA during the road trip. Wom*n also mostly facilitated action logistics discussions and took on support roles during the actions. Wom*n were on the media team and took responsibility for social media. They also took on roles such as being drivers, setting up the tea station and bringing food for everyone, waking people up at 5 am to get to the action, looking after children, liaising with police officers and workers and eventually facilitating de-brief discussions after each action. It seemed that wom*n’s authority was taken seriously in these activist spaces. At the same time, the absence of cis-males taking responsibility was very apparent, with a few notable exceptions. This seems to point to an underlying trend in the activist camps for gendered labour, and wom*n disproportionately taking on more traditional women’s labour while men strategies, plan for actions and expect women to do the thankless background tasks that actually stabilise the protest camps and the campaigns. While the coalition of support by all activists saw more wom*n being the engineers and spokespeople for the actions carried out during our road trip, there was much to be desired in terms of dismantling gendered labour.

There has been a long history of co-operative environmental activism between Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups during the FLAC campaign. During the road trip, local Gamilaraay people threw the Leard activists an appreciation lunch to thank them for their ongoing efforts in solidarity with Aboriginal people to protect the Leard state forest from being destroyed by the Whitehaven mine expansion. While we, the transient road-trippers, hardly deserved such a hero’s service (we’d only been around for a few days, unlike some who have intermittently been at the Leard blockade since 2012), it was reassuring to see that activism has happened according to what Aboriginal people need and want. Especially so as relations between Aboriginal and green groups in Australia have historically been terse due to cross-purposes and a lack of understanding on the part of white, greenie environmentalists. Seeing Gamilaraay folks in communication with FLAC activists is a powerful reminder that relationships built on trust and mutual understanding in activists communities are really empowering and necessary in pursuing social environmental justice.

The road trip ended up being a community-building endeavour, blending old and new activists, local and non-local and Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. We met people who, instead of crumbling in despair at the slow, violent destruction of land, have enduring spirit and determination to stop CSG and coal mining expansion. The collaboration of all these activist groups is so essential in supporting Aboriginal-led land rights struggles to secure their land, their community and their futures.