“If we want to look after people and the land as we repower New South Wales [with renewable energy] we have to fight for it”, George Woods from Lock the Gate told a large rally of First Nations people, farmers and city-dwellers who took over Martin Place near NSW Parliament on March 24.
The Time2Choose rally, a year out from the NSW state election, sent a clear message to the major parties that they pander to the coal and coal seam gas (CSG) companies at their peril.
The rally, initiated by Lock the Gate Alliance and six months in the planning, drew up to 10,000 people from across NSW. It involved long-standing community networks including the North West Alliance, Hunter and Central Rivers Alliance, the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers and Indigenous people from the Gomeroi, Wonnarua, Ngemba, Biripi, Darug and Bundjalung nations as well as other First Nations peoples. The rally was also supported by the Nature Conservation Council, 350.org, The Wilderness Society, Knitting Nannas and Stop Coal Seam Gas Sydney.
Woods said residential areas of Sydney, such as Camden, and prime agricultural land at the Liverpool Plains and the Bylong Valley “need to be off limits” to coal and gas mining. She received huge applause when she asked if the crowd thought CSG should be banned.
“It’s our time to choose: all of us are part of a global movement to demand that coal and gas be replaced with renewable energy — to clean the air, save water and stop global warming.”
Nathan Leslie, a Gommeroi man from north-west NSW who is fighting to protect the Pilliga from Santos’ gas project and Whitehaven Coal in the Narrabri, said if First Nations’ communities had land rights, then country, communities and farmland would be protected.
“North west NSW is under attack from CSG and coal mining. Australia has a black history, [and] it’s important for us [Indigenous and non-Indigenous] to come together and acknowledge our common enemy — the government”, he said.
Anne Kennedy, a farmer from Coonamble and president of the NSW Artesian Bore Water Users Association , told the rally that too many people do not understand the real value of water: “When our tanks run dry, our saviour is our artesian water. It is our life water.
“This water is replenished by rainfall from the Pilliga Forest, where Santos wants to drill 850 coal seam gas wells for the Narrabri Gas Project. CSG mining in the Pilliga will poison our water and it will ultimately destroy the Great Artesian Basin.
“The damage is evident all over Queensland already: they’ve lost hundreds of [artesian] bores … and even the ground leaks gas.”
Kennedy explained that insurance companies refuse to cover the risks from CSG mining. Despite wanting insurance, she found that no company would take on the risk. “If it is not a risk, it’s a certainty — it’s inevitable. And yet the NSW government is backing Santos to pock mark the Pilliga with toxic gas wells.
“We will not let them! We know this would only be the first of many gas wells in our region: Santos has already mapped seven.
“In north-west NSW we have been resisting the gas pipeline for a while. People have said that the battle against CSG will be won in Coonamble. It’s so important that you are here today to fight with us over the next six months … we have the numbers to make a difference.
“Santos doesn’t have the approval yet for this Narrabri gas field. Last year, there were a record 23,000 submissions against its application. Santos still has to respond to those.
“Across north-west NSW, 97% of people surveyed from more than 101 communities and over 5 million hectares have declared that they are going to remain ‘gasfield free’. These people are totally dependent on artesian water.
“Coal seam gas mining is a short-term destructive industry that leaves an industrial wasteland behind and destroys our water.
“By uniting we have so far stopped CSG mining spreading in NSW. And many communities have won against the gas industry giant.
“This year, we have to stop the [gas] industry for good. Water is life. This is a battle that we cannot afford to lose.”
Charlie Prell, a “proud farmer and environmentalist” from Crookwell in the southern tablelands, told the rally he was pleased so many farmers, including some with their horses, had “made the trek” to the rally.
The deputy chair of Farmers for Climate Action, Prell said he is “a passionate supporter of wind farms and the benefits they can bring to farmers and regional Australia.
“I have already seen the effects of climate change — and they are frightening.
“We are seeing dramatic changes in the weather that are due to climate change. We have to move on from the debate about climate change and do something about it.
“I’ve battled droughts, floods and the vagaries of the commodities markets for 40 years” he said, adding "but there is hope”.
He pointed out the construction of wind turbines on his property and adjoining farms would assist farmers to manage economically and environmentally sustainable farms because farmers will not have to “push the land as hard” to survive.
Prell said that the rollout of wind farms would have “multiple benefits” to communities in regional Australia and that the roll out of renewables — wind farms and solar farms — needs to be expedited.
“We need to move towards a renewable energy future. We need to choose a renewable energy future, not a fossil fuel-based future,” he said, urging rally-goers to join organisations pushing for renewable energy.
“We are living in a time of revolution — some say it is the third industrial revolution — and we have to make sure that it is also a social revolution. Distributive renewable energy is part of that future,” he said. “Revolutions don’t happen from the top down: you and those of us who live in regional Australia must drive that revolution”.
“We can power NSW with renewable energy — 100% renewable energy. We can manage this transition to renewable energy ourselves.
“Don’t wait for the politicians to change. Make them change,” he concluded.
[Pip Hinman is an activist in the anti-fracking movement in NSW.]
More photos by Zebedee Parkes here.