Torching God’s country
Lately, I’ve got to thinking about the importance Australians place in burning great things – things of immeasurable value.
Take a drive to the Hunter Valley and you’ll see the ugly side of Australia’s predilection for carbon - the precious fossil fuels we peddle round the world and the huge economic power they wield in this country.
Around the mining town of Muswellbrook is a landscape ravaged by mining; farmland gouged away for the sake of the big deposits beneath, its air thick with coal dust and the smell of decay.
I’ve witnessed this area’s destruction, little by little, mountain by mountain over the past three or so decades. To me it epitomises all that’s gone awry in Australia’s energy thinking.
Addicted to the huge financial benefits, the NSW State Government has waved in coal companies with routine regularity. Since 1995, not a single coal mine plan has been rejected in a place now not-so-fondly referred to as “King Coal’s dirty throne”.
Little wonder then that around these parts, there’s an overwhelming sense of foreboding defeatism in the face of “progress”.
But drive a little further down the road, beyond the Great Dividing Range and you’ll find a showdown that many of us hope will change the thinking of Australia’s mining dictatorship.
On the black fertile soil of the Liverpool Plains, a defiant group of farmers and unlikely greenies have been going into bat against mining giants BHP and Chinese company Shenhua, who have been granted coal exploration licences in the area – handing over a sweet $400million to the NSW government in the process.
For me, it’s hard not to get emotional about it. I grew up in the land we call “God’s Country”.
Like many who live there, I know that there’s more to the plains around Gunnedah than that other great export of ours, Miranda Kerr.
It’s one of the richest farming regions in Australia. And what lies beneath is more than just that old black magic that is keeping the NSW State Government’s budget balanced. There’s also precious water – a gigantic aquifer that quenches the thirst of the Liverpool Plains even through the worst drought.
More worrying, is that this ground water also feeds into that other great production region, the Murray-Darling basin which stretches over parts of South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland.
The big concern about tearing up this unique patch of iconic farmland is the great “unknowns” and if we’re prepared to risk such a prize for coal’s fast cash. Take the coal away and all we might be left with is some pretty unproductive dirt. See how the next generation of farmers are taking up the fight online.
When Four Corners covered the conflict a few weeks ago, the local Namoi Valley Independent editorialised that somehow our little patch of earth had been turned into a reality show – with a small band of well-to-do farmers up against the big guys. It suggested they could do well by getting a good PR team in to push the hard-luck line needed to harness a widespread and sympathetic campaign.
The Greens and the Opposition are now backing the fight to limit mining operations on Australia’s prime agricultural land. But battlers or bluebloods, I wonder whether that’s enough to get a reality check from State and Federal governments on their open slather approach to mining operations, without also addressing climate change and food security.
The farmers have been blockading access to BHP-Billiton for around a year now but the signs of fatigue are showing. Lured by cheques with lots of zeros, a few of the farmers have already sold.
A water study of the Namoi River catchment is on the way. But by the time it reports back, it might already be too late. BHP Billiton will likely complete its exploration before then and it will be interesting to see if the State government has the balls or the budget to say no to what inevitably comes next.
While the mining companies say they don’t intend to mine the plains, they have no problem digging up the hills that drain water into them. They say that mining and agriculture can peacefully co-exist.
But those of us who have taken that long and painful drive through the Hunter’s growing lunar landscape – or worse still, flown over it, know that’s not exactly true. In fact, like the air around Muswellbrook, that argument is a little on the nose.
I’m with the farmers in saying that it’s time to draw a line in our earth. At what cost is one-off combustion when we’re talking about future food and water production?
Surely something must be left sacred without the need to burn it up? If it’s not God’s Country then I don’t know what is.
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