Voices of resistance in the Pilliga

Speaking to the activists fighting Santos on Gamilaraay land.

Art by Claire Ollivain.

Six hours north of Sydney, a straight shot up the Newell Highway, lies the Pilliga Scrub: the largest remaining stretch of native forest, west of the Great Dividing Range. Pilliga (or Billarga) is a Gamilaraay word meaning ‘swamp oak,’ reminding visitors that these woodlands are sites of unceded Gamilaraay land. During a trip up to Narrabri in February alongside a group of students from universities across Sydney, I had driven up to rural northern New South Wales with (admittedly) little-to-no knowledge as to what to expect. As our car convoy trundles into the forest, tracing deep tire tracks left by trucks and ranger utes, I notice that the wiry native grasses seem to shimmer like fine satin. The mirage hides coarse stalks that catch on your clothes; the woodland is beautiful and resilient.

The sun beats down on ephemeral creeks, disguised as sandy dunes that break up a semi-arid backdrop of white cypress pine and eucalyptus. Yet, this seemingly harsh landscape is a place of extraordinary conservation value, providing desperately-needed refuge to endangered fauna such as squirrel gliders, barking owls, koalas, black-striped wallabies and the iconic endemic Pilliga mouse. The Pilliga is also one of the handful of areas that provides significant groundwater recharge to the Great Artesian Water Basin, the largest and deepest artesian basin in the world. This natural wonder provides essential freshwater to rural Australian communities and a vast network of ecosystems.

But looking at the native landscape, peppered with pipes and Santos signs, one can’t help but dread destruction on the horizon. In 2018, the Pilliga was approved by the New South Wales Independent Planning Committee (IPC) as the site of a controversial $3.6 billion coal seam gas project (CSG), spearheaded by Australian mining giant Santos. Under the Morrison government’s promise of a ‘gas-led recovery’ for Australia — a supposedly sustainable and less harmful alternative to fossil fuels — the project will see the construction of 850 new CSG wells in the region. However, CSG is hardly a sustainable alternative. 

CSG refers to the natural gas found in coal seam formations deep in the earth, contained by underground water pressure. Despite years of unwavering community opposition, Santos has been extracting CSG from the Pilliga for twenty years under exploration licenses, granted by the Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997. These ‘explorations’ are leaving devastation in their wake. CSG wells bring untreated production water up to the surface in order to release the natural gas from the seam, which is often contaminated with salt, heavy metals and other toxic contaminants. In addition to this, hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) is frequently used to stimulate gas flow in the wells, allowing companies to drain the land. Well-known for its devastating environmental impacts, fracking increases the likelihood of contaminating precious groundwater sources. The problem is that coal seams are often linked to underground aquifers, such as the Great Artesian Water Basin, and extractions risk the poisoning of the entire water source as well as the innumerable ecosystems that rely on them.

The Pilliga is not expected to go down without a fight, and it has become a battleground against Santos for First Nations people, citizen scientists and passionate members of the local community for many years. The fightback is often unglamorous and seldom reaches the ears of city-centric, mainstream media, but there is a rich history of protest on this land. 

On the ground, lock-ons and protest camps have held the line against Santos and the encroachment of gas extractions as far back as 2014, camping along highways and in the scrub to delay or halt Santos’ advancements. Additionally, a battalion of citizen scientists and locals, as part of a community gas watch, make regular trips into the scrub to check on existing gas operations, test soil and water and check for new sites of pollution. 

I had the privilege of chatting to Dan, a dedicated local who makes regular trips into the scrub as part of the community gaswatch. He tells me about a protest camp in 2014 that occupied a strip of the Newell Highway for 3 months. The protest camp would not have been possible if not for the community banding together from far and wide. The local Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) looked the other way when asked to remove protesters, and truckers driving down from Northern Queensland would drop off food and supplies for the protesters, including watermelons, mangoes and one time, even a second-hand couch. With this community effort, the protest camp held the line against Santos’ encroachment on the Pilliga. But despite their efforts, Santos has continued to quietly extract gas from the land.

Before we drove into the scrub to investigate Santos’ gas operations, we were given an information pamphlet to prepare us for what we might find, detailing the location of the gas wells and water treatment plants, and types of pollution that we should look out for. On a visit to the Bibblewindi Water Treatment Plant, we discovered infertile topsoil as well as an unlit flare which is supposed to burn up unusable combustible vapours and liquids to prevent pollution.  Oddly, there was not a worker in sight. One of my companions made the comment that Santos had promised jobs to the local communities, yet all sites of operation that we encountered were being run by automation.

Local workers aren’t the only ones to lose out if Santos moves ahead with their controversial gas project; Santos’ operations have already and will continue to inflict damage on sacred Indigenous sites. The Pilliga is a sacred place for the Gamilaraay people, and while the IPC requires all relevant information regarding the land to be disclosed publicly, there is much information regarding the Gamilaraay relationship to the Pilliga that is culturally sensitive. In the process of discussions with the IPC, councillor Kodi Brady from Warrumbungle Shire Council believes that there has not been sufficient respect for First Nations culture and sovereignty of the land. 

“There has been a total lack of engagement and respect for First Nations people of these communities. The conversation needs to be had and led by First Nations people,” says Mr Brady, who is a Gamilaraay man himself. “We [the Gamilaraay people] don’t own the Pilliga, the Pilliga owns us as a people and we’re a part of it.”

As a step towards platforming Indigenous voices in the fight to protect the Pilliga, Mr Brady believes that discussions between official bodies such as the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) and Gamilaraay people should occur on Country, in the Pilliga itself.

Anna Christie, an anti-CSG advocate from the North West Protection Agency, believes that places like the Pilliga should be at the forefront of climate justice movements. The imperative of frontline activism is felt less in cities, where we often see thousands rallying for climate justice. In Narrabri and the Pilliga scrub, where sights of environmental and community destruction are unavoidable, the urgency mounts. Anna tells me that Santos patently understates its environmental impacts.

“They don’t calculate the roads they’re going to build and they underestimate how much clearing there is. It’s not just about adding up how many square kilometres they’re going to clear, because if you’re fragmenting the forest, that has impacts of its own. Fragmentation is really harmful for small animals that need shelter. It creates ‘super-highways’ for ferals.”

It is worth noting that if an area is fragmented by deforestation and other developments, it becomes harder to revive and restore. Fragmentation destroys the blueprint for what an ecosystem should be, thus destroying the ecological history of the area. “There is no intent to restore,” Anna says.

While the case of the Pilliga has been touched upon by the mainstream media, it is certainly not the first of its kind. As we venture into the scrub, Anna tells me about the town of Tara in Queensland, which has already fallen to the coal seam gas rush.

“It’s over. They’ve wrecked the place, the people have left, the place is polluted. Seriously, you don’t hear a bird sing. The only birds you see are crows, and they are the most sick-looking birds. It’s like a science fiction apocalypse. It’s dead.”

As Anna talks, I hear it then; the twittering of unseen birds in the trees that surround the ephemeral creek that we’d taken momentary refuge in. While much has been lost, there is still life in the Pilliga, still hope for restoration.

“It’s sad because out in Tara, there were a lot of dreams,” Anna reminisces. “Here in Narrabri, they’re still drinking the Kool-Aid. Despite the fact that it’s happened in Roma, Miles, Tara, they still think that Narrabri is going to do well.”

My trip to Narrabri brought me into contact with many locals within the community, painting a picture of a town divided by their hopes and fear of what Santos may bring. Given the looming threat of environmental devastation, it would be easy to assume that the community would stand as a united front in opposing further CSG developments. However, it quickly became clear that the shadow of Santos hung over the local community, masquerading as a selfless benefactor. Anna tells me that 98% of around 23,000 submissions in a local survey were opposed to Santos, yet the reality doesn’t seem to line up with the statistics.

Recently, Santos sponsored and commissioned a Santos Festival of Rugby in Narrabri which was welcomed by many people in the community who rejoiced at the financial influx that the rugby would inevitably bring. On the other hand, local activists argue that Santos has long been trying to drive a stake through the community, splitting the people with their promises of prosperity. To Dan and Anna, Santos’ Festival of Rugby represents community division. “The town’s tearing itself apart,” says Dan. “It’s been a nightmare.”

Anna admits that within the local community, Santos’ CSG projects are taboo to talk about let alone oppose, as many locals fear retribution from Santos in the form of withdrawing economic support and investment in the town. More than that, many fear retribution from their neighbours and friends in the local community. Indeed, in the days leading up to the Santos Festival of Rugby, an Extinction Rebellion protester who had grown up in Narrabri was verbally assaulted by an enraged local, who accused the protesters of wanting to take away the harmless recreation of rugby away from her kids and the wider community. 

Experiences like this are sadly not uncommon, and I heard many similar stories as I met more climate protesters who had worked to keep up resistance on the frontlines. These kinds of misunderstandings run deep in the community, as misinformation runs amok. On another day, I was chatting to a vendor at the local market, and we got on the topic of the CSG projects. “They’re not fracking though,” she said to me. Yet, fracking is used to stimulate the gas flow in about 40% of CSG wells in Australia, allowing gas companies to extract as much as possible from the land.

As our little troup left Narrabri, we took with us fresh hopes and renewed vigor for change. Anna hopes that future generations of activists will make more efforts to bridge the divide between the city and the frontlines. “If they get their foot in the door, we’re sunk,” she tells me.

In the face of encroaching climate catastrophe, it is difficult but important to envision a future free of mining giants, a future where we aren’t constantly immersed in a ubiquitous sense of doom and desperation. Yet, such a future is possible. “We’ve kicked them out of everywhere except here,” says Dan. “We’ve kicked them out of Gosper, the Northern Rivers, we’ve stopped them drilling in Sydney, we’ve wrapped up the rest of the state and every other [gas] company except this one, and that’s because it’s Santos. They’re a big company, they’re backed by the government and they’ve got a lot of power.”

On the long drive back to the city, one memory sticks in mind; Anna handing me a small flyer with a map of the Pilliga forest on the back and a collage of wildflowers on the front. “We don’t like to just talk about the bad stuff,” she says. “We like to remember the good stuff too.”