The trucks will soon start rolling into the Leard State Forest to build infrastructure for the mines that will all but destroy it. The Boggabri and Tarawonga mines are expanding within the forest, and a third, the Maules Creek mine, is being established.
It will be the start of the largest coal mine expansion in New South Wales, and the death knell for both a critically endangered ecosystem and the local community, according to the many and diverse people who oppose the mining expansion in the remote region in the state's north.
The Leard State Forest recently came to prominence as the site of one of the most spectacular corporate hoaxes in Australian history. In January a press release under ANZ letterhead was sent from a remote protest camp within the forest that has been established and continuously occupied for more than 300 days.
The release briefly wiped more than $300 million off the market capitalisation of Whitehaven coal. Two weeks ago, anti-coal activist Johnathan Moylan was charged with misleading the market in connection to the release. If convicted, he faces 10 years' prison and half a million dollars in fines.
But there's a deep background to the protest camp, which acts as both a symbolic blockade and a hub for those who oppose the expansion of mining in the area. It's brought together farmers, activists, ecologists, families, civil servants and artists united in their opposition to the proposed Maules Creek mine.
Murray Drechsler has lived in the 7000-hectare forest for almost a year, keeping an eye on the mines and fighting to focus public awareness on the impending establishment of the 4000-hectare Maules Creek mine and Boggabri/Tarawonga expansions, which would clear half of the endangered box-gum woodland forest, a tier one biodiversity hotspot.
“The first priority is to raise awareness,” he tells New Matilda. “To let people know there is a coal mine in State Forest.”
Despite Maules Creek mine receiving its final approval, the groundswell of support he and other activists have achieved has left him optimistic.
“There's a very good chance we'll win,” says Drechsler. “The price of coal is dropping. Awareness of its impacts is rising.”
Since the existing Boggabri and Tarawonga mines laid off large parts of their local workforce, community support has cooled, he says.
“It's easier to communicate with people, because they know how ruthless the mines are.”
There has been opposition to coal and coal seam gas (CSG) mining in the area for more than a decade. Phil Laird's family has been farming in Maules Creek for six generations, and he is vehemently opposed to the mine that threatens his livelihood. So are most of the community, he tells New Matilda.
“We're surveying road-by-road what people want,” says Laird. “And of people who respond, about 96 per cent of landowners are saying they want their land and road coal or gasfield free.”
If Whitehaven Coal's Maules Creek mine goes ahead, it will be the end of a long battle for him. “Once they start, that's it,” says Laird. “It's a wall of money, and there's nothing anybody can do about it.”
He has briefed ministers, banks, and commodities analysts, and is investigating a legal challenge to the mine before work properly begins on the infrastructure.
The Lairds and other farmers have supported the environmental activists and their camp in the forest.
“My brother Rick gives Murray fuel, and we'll give him meat from time to time,” he says.
“He's got a lot of supporters. Cliff [Wallace, another local farmer] is here at the camp three or four nights a week. Water, showers – there's all sorts of things that people do.”
The support for the protest camp is not charity or country hospitality, but a manifestation of an alliance that's been growing for a long time, as farmers and environmentalists realise the extent to which their aims are complementary.
“Activism is like a chess game,” he says. “You have to know who's on your side, and where they are. You have to know what you're trying to achieve on any given day.”
“When you start getting all of these groups to join together and form one big group you have a threat to capital,” he says. “If a project is wound up because it's not legally able to proceed, or a mass movement stops it in its tracks, that's when [mining investors]get very nervous.”
Johnathan Moylan, who has become a posterboy for the anti-coal movement since he was charged, is also acutely aware of the need for traditional opponents to unite.
“The alliance between environmentalists and farmers is the most powerful social force in the country,” he tells New Matilda. He came to the camp to support the local protestors.
“We should be supporting farmers and their right to say not to large coal and CSG projects. Most people can understand the power imbalance between a large coal company and a small farming community.”
The opposition to the mine, say those involved in the campaign, has serious grounds. The approvals process was flawed, offset requirements flouted and the impact on surrounding groundwater inadequately examined. Health impact assessments were not part of the planning process, and the work by the mine's own environmental consultants was faulty.
“The pressure's on to deliver what the company wants,” says a spokesperson for the Australian Koala Foundation. “They use data selectively. A consultancy did a survey here and didn't find any koalas. There was a resident population here the whole time.”
Moylan, who faces stiff penalties for his own civil disobedience, says laws and regulations should be enforced against Whitehaven Coal, who own the Tarawonga and proposed Maules Creek mines.
“They're being investigated for supplying false and misleading information to gain approval,” he says. “Whitehaven must not be allowed to destroy any forest or farmland until that investigation is completed. We should all know whether their application and the approval were fraudulent and needs to be revoked.”
Cliff Wallace, an ex-orchardist who has been farming in Maules Creek for 28 years, is one of the camp's staunchest supporters – Dreschler camped on his land while he was looking for a place to set up camp in July last years.
Wallace provides showers for visitors to camp as well as meat and vegetable when he can, cuts firewood and takes interested parties on tours of his farm so they can see what's at stake.
“This is one of the last frontier fights,” he says. “If we lose this fight, we're losing our property rights.”
“Properties will be contaminated to the point where they're unfarmable.”
“When they've destroyed this valley, they'll move onto the next, and the next. What are we going to eat?”
If his opposition to the mine, and the reasons for his support for the protesters is driven out a wish to protect farmland, it's also ideological.
“We don't have the right to dig everything up in one generation,” he says. “We're lucky to be born in this country to begin with. If we dig it all up, what are we going to be left with?”
Over the past six months, more and more people have visited the camp. Activists from the cities are organising periodic gatherings that provide both entertainment and education for people from Melbourne, Brisbane, the Northern Rivers, Sydney, Tamworth, Armidale and other centres.
Families from nearby towns, opposed to the mine, come and camp with their children. Artists have developed work in the area, thankful for both the stimulus of the fight and the space the forest provides. The Gomeroi traditional owners have picketed the offices of Whitehaven coal in Boggabri over salvage practises of culturally significant objects, making national news.
If the legal challenges to the establishment of the Maules Creek mine are unsuccessful, the alliance of such diverse and numerous groups in opposition to it could yet stop it – though there isn't much time. Those at the forefront of the resistance remain optimistic though.
“This community is under siege,” says Moylan. “But by bringing people together, we know we can beat them.”
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