As you drive along the country roads of Eastern Australia, it is hard to ignore the persistent presence of yellow signs nailed to fence posts and tied to gates. The message is clear: mining companies are not welcome in these parts; residents have decided to ‘Lock the Gate to coal & gas companies.’
The Lock the Gate campaign began almost three years ago in the Darling Downs, southern Queensland, born out of a meeting between landholder groups and environmentalists. The rural population, particularly farmers, have typically been hostile to greens and Lefties, often worried that environmental conservation and indigenous land rights encroach on their ‘freedoms’. But these longstanding divisions were pushed aside and an unusual partnership was forged.
The government had recently decided to approve four massive new Coal Seam Gas (CSG) projects in the area. Apprehension around the expansion of the unconventional gas industry, and the technique of extraction known as fracking, quickly spread to encompass new coal developments and grew into what is probably the largest popular challenge that the Australian mining industry has ever seen.
The power of the Lock the Gate movement, which has mobilized thousands of people, is no mean feat in a country dominated by the interests of billionaires, who’ve made their fortunes drilling and digging holes. In Australia, mineral resources are legally the property of the state, but the profits are well and truly private.
In 2012, the Country Women’s Association, the largest conservative women’s organization in the country, often stereotyped as ‘great scone-bakers’, broke with 90 years of tradition and took to the streets, joining an anti-CSG rally of around 10,000 people in Sydney.
But until now, the rhetoric of the movement has largely focussed on protecting farmland and water resources, often peppered with nationalistic sentiments. On the surface the potential for a radical challenge to corporate mining interests would seem somewhat blunted. The fight seems to have pitted emerging, cashed-up mining magnates against entrenched agricultural elites. This includes millionaires from Sydney, who own vineyards and breed race-horses in New South Wales’ coal rich Hunter Valley.
In the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, an exciting branch of the campaign has decisively shifted the focus away from protecting patches of private property. Vast numbers of volunteers have been mobilized through town meetings, going door-to-door, sharing information on mining processes and surveying roads and towns.
The results of the survey process have been universally positive, with the overwhelming majority of residents electing to declare their roads and towns free from mining development. Subsequently, large numbers of people have been trained in peaceful civil disobedience, including techniques like blockading access to drilling sites and ‘lock-ons’, where people chain themselves to equipment or strategic locations.
Blockades in Glenugie and Doubtful Creek both lasted around 50 days, costing Metagsco, the company involved, tens of millions of dollars. Groups like the Knitting Nannas Against Gas, made up of retirees willing to be arrested (and knit) for a cause, have made it impossible for the mainstream media, governments and companies to dismiss the resistance as ‘the usual bunch of hippies and ferals’.
In March 2013, three years after their announcement to explore and exploit the CSG in the Northern Rivers region, Metagasco announced a halt to its plans and their share price plummeted to an all-time low. The executive board cited ‘regulatory uncertainty’ as the reason for its decision, but it was clear that the effectiveness of the campaign had made it all but impossible for the company to proceed.
What happens with Australia’s mining industry, matters to the rest of the world. Already the world’s biggest coal exporter, the country is set for an expansion, which on its own would produce more greenhouse gas emissions annually than the entirety of the UK.
Campaigners in the Northern Rivers have demonstrated a powerful model for challenging corporate power in government. The primary importance given to participation instead of financial contribution has placed ordinary people, who show up and do the hard work, at the heart the resistance, rather than wealthy and well-connected landowners.
The little yellow signs we see on country roads are just the tip of the iceberg. Lock the gate, then the town, and then the region – this strategy could prove decisive in the urgent fight to counter the power of mining companies and keep massive reserves of fossil fuels in the ground.