NSW Climate Camp speaks louder than words

October 19, 2009

The NSW town of Helensburgh, an hour south of Sydney, is now gripped by a discussion about coal and green jobs after the NSW Climate Camp held over October 9-11.

Despite driving rain and gale force winds, up to 300 people camped out on the local footy field, creating a festival of sustainable living, political workshops, art, music and activist organising.

The camp's theme was, "When it comes to water, climate and jobs — actions speak louder than words". Climate Camp organisers included Friends of the Earth, Rivers SOS, the Greens, local climate action groups, the Australian Student Environment Network, the Socialist Alliance and Resistance.

The camp concluded with a 600-person march and peaceful direct action on October 11.

The energetic and colourful crowd marched to the entrance of the Metropolitan Colliery, Australia's oldest operating underground coalmine.

Mine owner Peabody Energy won approval to expand damaging longwall mining operations under the nearby Woronora reservoir, a key water source for south Sydney and the Illawarra.

Climate Camp called for the mine expansion to be halted given the clear threat to drinking water and the pressing need to phase out coal-use to halt climate change.

Many local residents clapped and applauded and some joined the march. However, as protesters neared the mine, others gathered to boo the crowd. A few threw eggs. In response, activists chanted: "What do we want? Green jobs now! Where do we want them? Helensburgh!"

The action at the mine entrance was very moving. A small group of climate activists announced their intention to risk arrest and walk on to the mine site. They proceeded through a protest "guard of honour" to the police lines.

Col Ryan made the attempt with his 87-year-old father Bill. "We'll be walking on to the mine site today because we don't the younger generations to inherit a dead planet", Col said.

When police blocked the way the protesters peacefully sat down. Up to 100 people joined them in a blockade of the mine entrance. Coal trucks and trains were cancelled. No coal left the mine that day.

Speakers who addressed the crowd included: a traditional owner of Dharawal land Uncle Dootch Kennedy; retired coalminer Graham Brown; Greens NSW MLC Lee Rhiannon and Julie Shepherd from Rivers SOS.

Later, some activists dispersed around the mine perimeter. Police stopped most, but a few briefly entered the mine site. A total of 13 people were arrested.

Eight were given $350 fines for trespass. Five people were arrested earlier in the day at a direct action protest that stopped work at the nearby Dendrobium coalmine.

Given the area's historic reliance on coal, camp organisers were conscious to discuss green alternatives with the local community.

Street stalls were held outside the local supermarket every weekend for five weeks before the camp. Every house in Helensburgh was letterboxed by activists with information.

A public meeting was held in the town on September 26. Attended by more than 50 people, it discussed the potential for green jobs and the environmental problems with the mine expansion.

Camp organisers also met the mining division of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union beforehand.

The irony a the footy field scoreboard overlooking the climate camp that read "Helensburgh vs Visitors" wasn't lost on anyone. But the reality is that even in Helensburgh, many residents agree climate change is too serious to allow business-as-usual to continue.

For example, most online comments from locals on the Illawarra Mercury's site defended Climate Camp.

Climate Camp didn't advocate an immediate end to coalmining in the absence of alternatives. It argued for the creation of green jobs and new, sustainable industries to replace the reliance on coal.

It said workers and the community should lead this transition. To phase out the Illawarra's coking coal — used in steel production — campers backed more steel recycling, a cut in steel use, more research into alternatives such as carbon fibre composites and a push to make steel-making greener, including sourcing power from renewable energy.

Camp workshops on these issues included miners and steelworkers. The camp also pointed out that the coal industry's unquenchable thirst for profits, not the transition to a low carbon economy, was the threat to jobs.

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