Farmers’ versus BHP

Trish Duddy and Tommy and George Clift (front L to R, all hatted).

Farmers at Caroona on the Liverpool Plains near Quirindi, New South Wales, have been defending their properties from invasion by BHP-Billiton’s coal exploration drillers. For 615 days, until March 25, they inspired coal-threatened communities everywhere with their blockade, by saying “No” — and meaning it.

Trish Duddy and Tommy and George Clift have been at the blockade camp for every one of those 615 days, joined by other locals on a rolling roster for cups of tea, information-swapping, resolve-steeling — and symbolic trailblazing.

The drillers had government permission in the form of an exploration licence. But these farmers did not agree to give access because they have strong and reasonable fears that any drilling through their precious aquifers could cause contamination or loss of the water on which their highly productive grain cropping depends.

Recently the Supreme Court quashed the Mining Warden’s decision under which “access agreements” were imposed on two Caroona properties. The access agreements were declared null and void because BHP had failed to notify the mortgagees for the properties.

It was the first victory for the Brown and Alcorn families in an almost two-year battle to keep BHP-Billiton off their land. The ruling could set a precedent that voids every access agreement in the exploration licence area and across the state.

The blockaders have won a major battle. But the war continues to save their fertile farmland and its water supplies and they will not hesitate to reinstate the blockade if need be.

I had driven to the blockade that morning, looking south across the plains to the polluted and dust-laden skies of the Hunter Valley, where the government has allowed every coal company to win every battle.

Down there it is the wineries and thoroughbred horse studs now protesting that their industries cannot cope with any more coal mines.

The difference when I looked north, away from the coal-trashed Hunter, is obvious — clear blue skies, not murky brown. I admired the vast patchwork of ploughed land and crops, with the rusty red of sorghum seed-heads, the green of new crops, the cream of harvested stubble and the rich dark soil itself.

Later that day, heading towards the hills and home, I passed incredibly flat golden vistas of sunflower heads and their vibrant green plants and was struck by its “livingness” as I thought of the appalling contrast I would meet back as I drove back into the Hunter: vistas of dirt and coal, an industrial hell, a dead landscape, seen through the veil made by one of the highest concentrations of fine dust particulates in Australia.

I hope the Caroona farmers manage to stop this happening to their plains — and after speaking to many of them on the blockade, I believe they will.

[Abridged from]