Walking To Slow The Boom


Last weekend I had the privilege of spending a couple days at Louisa Creek — a little village that has found itself in the process of being bookended by two enormous coal ports in Queensland. I was there to take part in a community forum called Beyond Coal & Gas. It had been organised to try and puzzle out how to deal with the juggernaut that is Queensland’s coal export boom.

Over the two days about a hundred people came and went, all bringing with them their stories, their skills, their hopes and fears. Cattle farmers, midwives, traditional owners, economists, ecologists, peaceniks and activists shared information, built coalitions and forged friendships. And all of this took place in a large community hall that sat in the middle of a paddock, just set back from the beach.

Humble and hopeful doesn’t come close to describing the spirit of the endeavour. My job was to record some of the stories that this mining boom has created — a poor woman’s version of the mining industry’s slick advertising campaign, Mining: This Is My Story.

One of the women I interviewed was June, a 72-year-old activist whose eyes were opened to the impact of the mining boom via her work in East Timor in the post-war restoration. June had gone to East Timor to help in the first months after the war. She went off her own bat, with few contacts and in her own words, "as a woman with next to no education or employment record".

She had planned to go for six months, but came home to Brisbane four years later with her eyes wide open. "I got back here and heard people talking about war games … war games! As if war was a game, as if anyone could win."

Her road to Louisa Creek began in earnest by getting active in the peace movement. Yes, it sounds like something out of the 60s, but Australia does have a peace movement. For a long time its focus was on Queensland because the US decided to run their operation Sabre Talisman out there.

But it was last year when June began to become aware of the impact the mining boom was having on her community and her state. "Seeing people kicked off their land and the environment torn up, some of these areas actually look like a war zone," said June. "I had to do something and as I said, I haven’t got a huge education, I’m more a practical person, so I thought why don’t I just do a walk?"

In this instance June meant a 500-kilometre walk following the gas pipeline from inland Queensland to Gladstone. This is the pipeline that would carry the gas exploited through the coal-seam gas industry — the one that destroying farms across the state.

So earlier this year she walked the line, she spoke to folk as she walked and she told her story and the story of the communities and farms that were being taken apart by CSG. But as she discovered, it’s not just gas fields that are on the march across regional Australia. Coal mines are spreading their grey and black pits in bushland, farmland and catchments across central Queensland.

"It was good to do that walk, but when I got to the end a lot of friends started saying how they wish they had come with me and I also realised by then that the coal export boom was going to destroy the Reef — I love the Reef. So I thought it’s time to do another walk."

The walk June is planning at the moment will begin next June. She will walk 1400 kilometre from Cairns to Gladstone. "There will be a few diversions along the way."

So why, at the age of 71, would she think a walk of this distance, following the coast road down the Reef, is a good thing to do? Could it be time to take up Bridge?

"Well," said June, "I have seen what war does to kids, to families. I saw how hurt East Timor was by that war. When I began to see images like that here in Australia, I couldn’t stay quiet. It is just shocking that this mining explosion is turning parts of Australia into a war zone. How can I, as a mother, with kids that I love, not do whatever I can to protect this beautiful place and these beautiful people? I really don’t know how I can turn my back on people that need help.

"Walking is how I can bring attention to what is happening here. I guess I just have the hope that if everyone else in Australia saw what was actually going on through this terrible boom, they would care as much I do.

"I think most Australians are really decent people and I think my job is to let everyone know what is happening. This is still our country. Those mining companies might be powerful and rich but it is still our country."

I don’t know if June is right. I don’t know if enough people care. But I really hope she is. Mid 2013 feels like a long way away, but I doubt June will be walking on her own by then.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.