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Behind the seams: Lock the Gate unites cockies, blockies, croppers and greenies

I have been copping some flak lately from my Green or left-wing friends for being seen talking about coal and coal seam gas on public platforms with such well-known political conservatives as Alan Jones and Bob Katter. These people tell me they won’t come to meetings or actions being organised by Lock the Gate while we mix with such people. My response to them is two-fold.

First, demanding that Greens such as me campaign only with people who share our politics or cultural attitudes is the same as saying we don’t want to win. Our opponents — the coal and coal seam gas companies – are among the biggest and most powerful multinational corporations on the planet and they have the ear of both government and opposition. We can only achieve our objectives by forming strategic alliances with those who agree that irresponsible resource extraction represents a very serious threat to our land, our water and our communities.

Therefore the Lock the Gate movement is an alliance between progressives and conservatives, left and right, city and country, farmers and environmentalists.

However, the issue goes deeper than this. Rural Australia faces the prospect of the most radical transformation it has experienced since the expansion of the pastoral frontier in the 19th century with the expansion of open cut coal mining and the development of coal seam gas. Whole regions of rural Australia (wherever there is a coal seam) will be turned into either a lunar landscape by open cut coal mining or a spider web of gas wells, pipelines, service roads, holding ponds, compressor stations, reverse osmosis plants and other pieces of large industrial infrastructure associated with coal seam gas.

As well, thousands of hectares of native vegetation will be cleared to make way for the thousands of kilometres of pipeline corridors, fragmenting precious bushland corridors and endangering many plant and animal species. At the end of the export coal seam gas project — the port of Gladstone - the dredging of millions of cubic metres of spoil is undoubtedly contributing to the ecosystem collapse currently being seen in the harbour while world heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef are being threatened by the building of up to five LNG plants on Curtis Island and the new or greatly expanded coal ports along the Queensland coastline and the tripling of the state’s coal exports.

When people hear this, they don’t ask themselves whether they are Labor, Green or Liberal; their reaction is dependent on whether they love the country or merely see it as the source of a quick buck. The politics of the 21st century and forms of social contestation will be more and more dominated by how we decide to use natural resources and traditional political loyalties will not be much of a guide to this.

The new face of resistance to environmental vandalism — the Lock the Gate Alliance — does not have its epicentre in the inner suburbs of our major cities; it is in such regions as the Darling Downs and the Scenic Rim of Queensland and the Northern Rivers, Liverpool Plaines and Hunter Valley of New South Wales. Of course, they will receive a lot of support from the cities because, historically, Australians might live in cities but their hearts are in the bush.

Another reaction I sometimes get from my Green friends is that I am doing a great job “converting” all these anti-environmental bushies. I very quickly correct this impression. First, many farmers are not anti-environmental. The best farmers, in fact, have to be keenly aware of the need to work with nature. Also, at no stage did I take an evangelical approach to my work with rural landowners fighting coal or CSG companies.

I travelled extensively through rural Queensland, and then later through New South Wales and Victoria, learning as much as I could about the impacts of these industries and how people in rural and regional Australia coped with life. In doing so, I went back to my own roots which were in the small Queensland country town of Chinchilla, now right in the heart of Gasland.

I was born and raised in Chinchilla and knew the whole western darling Downs intimately. It was, therefore, heart-breaking to see what was happening to it — 4000 wells already with at least 40,000 destined to go into the Surat Basin — and so it was easy for me to empathise with landowners caught up in this tragedy-in-the-making.

I went from farmhouse to farmhouse. I found despair, bitterness, anger and depression. I was often met with resentment that someone with my background (an environmental activist) would be arriving at their door. Nevertheless, most saw the value of having a strategic alliance with environmentalists and so I worked with them as they set up local groups and I used the media to get the news out, especially to a city audience. Some groups’ existence preceded my arrival — the Friends of Felton, Coal for Breakfast and the Western Downs Alliance were all thriving groups that knew what they were doing.

In fact, it was the Western Downs Alliance that persuaded me to drop all my roles in the Greens and take on coal seam gas. The WDA consists mostly of “blockies” — often very poor people, many on disability pensions, who have moved out to live on lifestyle blocks on the western Darling Downs. They might be poor but some such as Dayne Pratzky, Michael Bretherick, Scott Collins and Debbi Orr have become key campaigners in Lock the Gate as a whole.

All issues — good farm land, underground water and environmental values are important — but the Tara ‘blockies’ represent a touchstone issue in the campaign. The company QGC plans to put a gas field right across their rural residential estate which is already surrounded by gas infrastructure.  This will make their lives miserable and their blocks unsaleable. This is a major social justice issue and they deserve support. A lot of farmers like the indefatigable Lee McNicholl and Paul O’Neill have given great support to all the direct action undertaken by the WDA but there is still a lot of class prejudice in the bush. No state politician has, of course, been anywhere near them, even with an election looming.

Blockies, cow-cockies, croppers and greenies have all come together under the Lock the Gate brand. A locked gate in the bush is a powerful symbol. It means you can’t come in and it expresses the determination of landowners to refuse entry to resource companies even though the law might say they have no choice. This non-cooperation campaign has resulted in hundreds of landowners locking their gates on resource companies, especially coal seam gas companies which prefer to negotiate an access and compensation agreement with the landowner rather than buying the property.

The rate of sign-up by landowners has slowed to a trickle as landowners have come to realise the dangers of coal seam gas and can see the success other landowners are having with their defiance of the companies. This has worked so well that one company at least — Arrow Energy — will have great difficulty even getting off the ground because they simply will not persuade enough landowners to agree to their access.

However, Lock the Gate has stepped up its confrontational tactics and has started to “block the gate”. In other words communities are reacting to the unwanted presence of gas activity in their areas and have taken to blockading the companies. The first such action was at Tara in early 2011 where the Western Downs Alliance conducted a blockade against QGC and forced them to take over 90 days to connect up five wells, a job that was supposed to take no more than three weeks.

Then, in January 2012, members of the group, Keep the Scenic Rim Scenic, blockaded an Arrow Energy drill rig. Fifteen people were arrested in the 12-day blockade and the drill rig was able to finish its work, protected by dozens of police but it is not likely they will be back. If they do come back, they will be blockaded again.

Then, in February 2012, 400 Lock the Gate members, mostly, landowners, marched on the coal loading facility for New Hope Coal’s Acland mine. They were accompanied by well-known Australians like radio broadcaster Alan Jones, and politicians Bob Katter and the Greens’ Senator Larissa Waters. LNP leader, Campbell Newman, announced that a government run by him would not allow the proposed Acland mine to go ahead and, almost immediately, New Hope withdrew its company from the market and its share price dropped more than 5%.

The alliance of farmers and greenies has already chalked up some good wins with its policy of keeping resource activity away from inappropriate areas and its strategy of non-violent direct action to confront this destructive behaviour and the governments that allow it. However, this conflict will last a long time and there will be many more tests of this fascinating new social movement — Lock the Gate.

Drew Hutton is a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth (Aust) and president of the Lock the Gate Alliance.

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