stop adani 31 March 2017

Saying no to Adani, saying yes to the Reef – local voices speak out

There is growing local opposition to Adani's plans to dig Australia's biggest coal mine in northern Queensland. Josh Meadows talks with conservationists, tourism operators, students and Traditional Owners. for the latest edition of habitat magazine.

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It’s a warm evening in Townsville, the geckoes are chk-chk-chking and I’m in the yard off the back veranda at the North Queensland Conservation Council with 40 other people, all of whom want to stop Adani’s Carmichael coal mine from going ahead.

It’s been a big week and the mood of the gathering is pretty flat.

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ACF staff and supporters meet in regional Queensland to discuss their thoughts on the issues and opportunities facing their communities when it comes to Adani's Carmichael coal mine. Photo: Kerry Trapnell

Two days earlier Indian billionaire Gautam Adani flew into town, was warmly greeted by the Queensland premier and announced that the headquarters for his company’s Carmichael coal project would be in Townsville. There was much talk about the ‘thousands’ of jobs the mine would create, even though an Adani representative has admitted in court the company’s real estimate is 1,464.

The Townsville Bulletin is on board. The day Mr Adani arrived the paper’s front page carried a photoshopped image of the Adani private jet coming in over Castle Hill alongside a big WELCOME TO TOWNSVILLE sign.

For those who don’t believe this project should proceed – because of the impact the massive coal mine would have on the local environment, culturally significant places, water supplies, the climate and the Great Barrier Reef – it can feel like we’re losing.

ACF campaigner Basha Stasak tells the tropical evening gathering of conservationists we shouldn’t be discouraged.

“With all the talk and all the hype you would be excused for thinking this mine was guaranteed to go ahead,” she says. “Well, it’s not. Did you know Adani’s board has not even definitely decided to proceed with the project? Every six to twelve months Adani says it will make its final investment decision in the next six to twelve months. Then it pushes back that decision yet again.”

For those who don’t believe this project should proceed – because of the impact the massive coal mine would have on the local environment, culturally significant places, water supplies, the climate and the Great Barrier Reef – it can feel like we’re losing.

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ACF campaigner Basha Stasak tells the gathering of conservationists we shouldn’t be discouraged by Adani's announcements regarding the Carmichael mine. Photo: Kerry Trapnell

In 2012 Adani Australia’s CEO Harsh Mishra said the company would start construction the following year. That was more than four years ago. Still no mine.

North Queensland Conservation Council president Gail Hamilton, born and raised in Townsville, laughs when I ask her why she opposes the Adani mine. “Because it’s nuts!”

When Gail studied engineering in the late ’80s it was already well known the burning of coal was putting the world on the path to catastrophic climate change. Thirty years on, and with global warming affecting Australians in so many ways, she can’t believe a project like this is being taken seriously.

“Obviously when this coal is dug up, it’s going to be burnt, and when it’s burnt it’s going to contribute carbon dioxide [to the atmosphere] … it’s insane.

“And what’s even more insane is not only are our govts supporting it, they’re talking about providing funds to it, which is totally immoral and doesn’t make any sense.”

Gail Hamilton from NQCC learned about climate change in the 1980s and cannot believe a proposal like Adani's can be taken seriously in 2017. Photo: Kerry Trapnell

Townsville is a uni town and an army town. Eighteen-year-old Maison Lukic-Bristow is from a defence force family. He loves the area’s tropical landscapes and says going out on the Great Barrier Reef as a kid “shaped me and inspired me to get politically active.”

The day Mr Adani came to town Maison was one of hundreds who took to the streets of Townsville to voice their opposition to the mine.

“We had a massive turnout, which was awesome, considering Townsville is not necessarily a very politically engaged place,” he says.

Maison Lukic-Bristow says going out on the Great Barrier Reef as a kid shaped and inspired him. Photo: Kerry Trapnell

Liz Downes, who has lived in Townsville since 1970, tells me she hadn’t planned to speak at the snap rally, “but the more you listen, the more stirred up you get and the more you really want to tell people.

“I have two grandchildren… I’ve just been at their school this morning.  It might sound like a bit of a cliché, but I do look at them and think, what is in store for them?

“All generations think that, but for this generation it seems to be even more urgent.  The problems they are going to face are likely to be horrendous. 

“So I look at these two growing boys who just love going out bush and going out on the water and I think, what’s in store for them and those who come after them?”

Liz Downes worries about the world her grandsons will inhabit if projects like Adani's Carmichael mine go ahead.
Photo: Kerry Trapnell

The next day I’m at Airlie Beach, talking with dive business operator Tony Fontes. The Barrier Reef around here avoided damage in 2016’s mass coral bleaching, but Tony has seen bleaching before and knows it’s “not very nice”. What’s his reason for opposing the Adani mine?

“Well, it’s pretty selfish. It’s the reef. Obviously it’s my livelihood.  I want to look after my livelihood. 

“But I think you’ll find for most people working in tourism, particularly in the dive industry, it’s more than a livelihood. We have a real passion for the reef. Otherwise we wouldn’t be divers.

Tony loves the way he sees something different every time he dives on a coral reef. He especially loves coming across nudibranchs, the tiny colourful sea slugs.

“When you spot one it’s like being in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest, finding a butterfly that no one’s ever seen. You can’t beat that.”

Tourism operator Tony Fontes is passionate about saving the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Kerry Trapnell

Tony’s connection to the reef has been nurtured over decades.

Other people have a connection going back thousands of years to land that would be disturbed by Adani.

“We come from the river,” says Ken Dodd, sitting on the banks of the Bowen River, west of Collinsville, as sounds of birds and cicadas fill the air and tadpoles flick through the shallows at our feet.

“We are the mountain, we are the hill people and we are the river people.”

Coal is not new to this part of the world. It’s been here for millennia and is part of the local Aboriginal story of place.

“In our country there are stories of the sky people that came to the land,” Ken tells me. “They were giants who walked across the land and created certain areas and sacred places within our country… the areas where they camped, the fire pits where they cooked their food – these are the coal seams, the coal pits we see on our country today.”

The proposed Carmichael mine site is 200 kilometres from where we’re sitting, but the railway line that would link the mine to the harbour at Abbot Point would run right through Ken Dodd’s country.

“The project has brought a lot of fear and trauma back into our people,” Ken tells me. “For that coal to get to the ports, it crosses our country – through Janga country, through Biri country, through Juru country and to the port… we are very concerned about this large scale project.”

Coal is not new to this part of the world. It’s been here for millennia and is part of the local Aboriginal story of place.

The railway line that would link the Carmichael mine to the harbour at Abbot Point would run right through Ken Dodd’s country. Photo: Kerry Trapnell

Aside from the rail line, Ken also worries about what the Adani mine would mean for water. Coal mines are thirsty beasts.

The Urannah dam proposal, which has been on the cards for decades, has had a renewed push lately. The local federal MP, George Christensen, is right behind it. Traditional owners and conservationists suspect recent political interest in the dam might have a lot to do with Adani’s need for water.

“Urranah is being sold as an agricultural and a community project, but in reality it is not,” Ken says.

“It will be a privatised water scheme where certain stakeholders will hold the monopoly of the water resource in this area.”

Ken doesn’t buy the argument that there would be jobs for local Aboriginal people if the mine and railway were built.

“I’ve been in negotiations on native title for a long time,” he says. “One of the main selling points is the business, employment and training opportunities for our people. That has failed us every time.”

Ken says the way mining companies use the word ‘indigenous’ actually disadvantages the local traditional owners. 

“The word indigenous allows any indigenous person, whether they be from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand or any part of Australia, to tick that box and that will be classed as a statistic for indigenous employment within our area.”

In any case, many of the local Aboriginal kids have dreams for themselves that don’t include working in a coal mine.

“It’s gone past the point of saying to our children, go to the mines and get a job,” Ken says.

“Our children are waking up that these projects are having major social and environmental impacts… We’re looking for better options [such as] working with green energy companies… instead of just destroying our country and isolating our people in the mining area.”

I ask Ken what he thinks when he hears the view, put by Senator Matt Canavan and others, that the Adani coal will lift people in India out of poverty.

“When I hear that it brings back to me that our people have been living in poverty since colonisation. We’ve lived in third world conditions. And we still are today.

“To hear that they’re using the Indian people and their social struggle as a third world country to get this mine across… it’s an insult to people [here in Australia] who have come from third world conditions.”

Ken and Juru elder Aunty Carol Prior tried to speak with Gautam Adani and Annastacia Palaszczuk when the businessman and the premier were in Townsville. There was a game of cat and mouse as Ken and Carol chased the official entourage from place to place, getting blocked by security before they could say what they came to say.

They eventually cornered the powerful duo in an underground carpark, where Premier Palaszczuk got out of the car and listened to the Aboriginal pair’s arguments against the Adani mine.

Mr Adani did not get out of the vehicle.

What would Ken say if he could speak directly to the Adani boss?

“We do not support your project… the cultural destruction and the way this process has been manipulated and the way the government has supported it, we are totally disgusted as First Nations people that this is actually happening in 2016.”

“To hear that they’re using the Indian people and their social struggle as a third world country to get this mine across… it’s an insult to people [here in Australia] who have come from third world conditions.”

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If it goes ahead, burning coal from Adani’s massive Carmichael mine would create billions of tonnes of pollution, make climate change worse and irreversibly damage the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Troy Mayne

In so many ways the Carmichael project sounds like something from Bjelke-Peterson era Queensland. It doesn’t sounds like something from deep in the second decade of the 21st century in a state with ambitions to become a renewable energy powerhouse. It’s a proposal that seems to fit in a time before coral bleaching, before community-wide acceptance of global warming, before concerns about water shortages, before Aboriginal land rights.

Yet this dinosaur proposal from a long-gone era has the backing of the present day state and federal governments.

In so many ways the Carmichael project sounds like something from Bjelke-Peterson era Queensland. It doesn’t sounds like something from deep in the second decade of the 21st century in a state with ambitions to become a renewable energy powerhouse.

Back in Townsville, insects are swarming around the light on the veranda and people are saying goodnight and heading home.

The mood is positive, determined, hopeful.

The Carmichael proposal may have some high-level supporters, but it is no done deal and is a long way from having broad public support.

Adani might have its mining licence, but is does not have its social licence.

Josh Meadows

Former senior media adviser at the Australian Conservation Foundation.