Don’t you just love those statements from companies in the extractive and fossil fuels industries about how they care for the planet? It’s all so warm and fuzzy and comforting for those who haven’t divested.
But as the US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump often and famously has said, “Show me the money.”
Apply that concept to a post-mining productive life for coal mines or fracking projects and you’d quickly be an ex-apprentice.
Let’s start with some back story. Back in the 1980s, Riverina locals planted trees as volunteers to help rehabilitate a former tin mine site at Ardlethan. An indication of how well that worked – the local council in 2015 is offering the former site as an option for Sydney garbage to be landfilled.
Put that fact together with the absolutely flabbergasting notion that post-Paris, the government is still full steam ahead on financial support for fracking and coal mines – including Adani’s Carmichael project.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt is quoted as saying it has support because he’s “not a neo-colonialist”, a statement most reputable historians like Henry Reynolds, Tom Keneally, Anne McGrath, Mary-Anne Jebb and Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt might contest. Indigenous leader Noel Pearson has also been seen to question why mining appears to matter more than caring for country.
The bottom line for all of us is that regardless of the fine words in Environmental Impact Statements, there is no evidence a former CSG or extractive mine site in Australia has successfully been repaired by the operator to the point it can have any other productive purpose. Perhaps one might argue that being able to fry up a BBQ on water at Chinchilla is a plus, but tell that to a thirsty person on a now non-viable farm and see how far you get run off the property. Or maybe ask the miners – they say it’s somehow normal.
The fact is, it’s not just the resources are non-renewable. The land is not renewable either under current rehabilitation processes, after the damage caused by mining. It’s an expensive business putting a piece of planet back together, and while some take the phoenix option and scarper with no obligations only to rise again as a different ASX entity, others like BHP appear to simply shrug and continue to plug how clean and green and fabulous they aim to be.
Where it gets tragic is how the Land Rights legislation and legal system developed by colonial powers, for the benefit of colonial powers, can disregard the claims of those who would protect the land in favour of those who would take a hand out if someone wrecks it.
I saw this first-hand at Timbarra in Northern NSW in the 1990s. In one corner, a gold mining company – initially the phoenix company Ross Mining – proposing cyanide extraction of marginal gold from a fractured granite aquifer at the headwaters of the Clarence River.
In the other, the traditional custodians and an environmental coalition including the Nature Conservation Council, National Parks Association, North East Forests Alliance, landowners and local environment centres.
The site included one of the only high-altitude wetlands in NSW, old growth forest with rare and endemic species including Eucalyptus Olida [strawberry gum] and Pugh’s Golden Mountain Frog – Philoria Pughi, a frog found nowhere else and named after Dailan Pugh AM, the son of famous painter Clifton Pugh, who identified the species.
Above all, the site was beautiful, unique, haunting and unforgettable. Uncle Eric Walker PhD, a traditional custodian of the site and respected Bundjalung Elder was clear in his instructions to anyone who listened – this place was sacred. It was not to be mined.
I heard him. Uncle Eric spoke with authority – he was one of the last of his tribe to be traditionally initiated on the mountain. Even the colonials did not have his date of birth, my Aunties said, because it predated their record keeping in that part of Bundjalung.
But the mining company found other people who under the system could make a claim of some kind, and from what we could see supported their legal efforts to overcome Uncle Eric and his people’s objections. They somehow overcame the environmental objections too.
I remember making many cups of tea on the mountain for heartbroken fauna surveyors who were on the one hand delighted by the amazing array of species they found, and on the other devastated because mining companies employ the surveyors for an EIS, and the surveyors knew the folk who paid their bill would also destroy the animals they loved so much.
I wept too, when going back after Ross went belly-up and Canada’s Barrick Gold took over, the old growth trees were gone. The music made by their hollowing branches in the wind was gone. The wetland was an ugly towering cyanide heap leach with a massive fence around it.
The medicine gardens that had been there on Timbarra where native rosemary had its bed, with other herbs beside all in their place, was gone. Those garden beds were so old, the stones had weathered to what new eyes might think of as “natural”, not seeing that what humans did thousands of years ago, while also living by a cultural law that prioritised harmony with nature is indeed “natural.”
It’s a case of the wrong lens being applied – one that looks for the raw, obvious modern human-style intervention instead of appreciating the durability of something that has been fit for purpose for 40,000 years.
Sadly, the ultimate damning irony at Timbarra is the mine never made money or produced commercial quantities of gold.
The lease kept changing hands – ultimately devolving to Barrick – and while it has done some work to fix the mess, the landscape is still altered. A rare wetland is still gone. Old growth strawberry gums are gone. Many of the sacred sites are gone.
Pugh’s mountain frog has lost habitat, and during a major wet season, toxins from the cyanide heap leach pad flowed down into the Clarence. The EPA did say it was fine though. My contact who lives on the river, however, still says different.
But of course all the agencies said it was fine, and there was no consequence for the original proponent.
This is why the recent news about the Adani Mine might go ahead despite the objections of Adrian Burragubba and his people makes me shift uncomfortably in my seat.
Yes, Adani claim they have made a deal with the “real” custodians. But can a non-Indigenous legal system ever be sure about that?
Uncle Eric never got over what the mine did to his country. It was part of his being.
Seeing the action by Indigenous people from around the world at Paris too, seems an example of what it means to be a custodian of country.
Can real custodians of any culture, any country, any history ever say “it’s okay to trash my country”?
Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger put the case very eloquently for why acting protectively towards the planet is actually just logical in his viral Facebook post “I don’t give a **** if we agree about climate change”:
“There are two doors. Behind Door Number One is a completely sealed room, with a regular, gasoline-fueled car. Behind Door Number Two is an identical, completely sealed room, with an electric car. Both engines are running full blast.
“I want you to pick a door to open, and enter the room and shut the door behind you. You have to stay in the room you choose for one hour. You cannot turn off the engine. You do not get a gas mask.
“I’m guessing you chose the Door Number Two, with the electric car, right? Door number one is a fatal choice – who would ever want to breathe those fumes?
“This is the choice the world is making right now.
“To use one of the four-letter words all of you commenters love, I don’t give a damn if you believe in climate change. I couldn’t care less if you’re concerned about temperatures rising or melting glaciers. It doesn’t matter to me which of us is right about the science.
“I just hope that you’ll join me in opening Door Number Two, to a smarter, cleaner, healthier, more profitable energy future.”
It’s not like there’s another country most of us are welcome to freely go to, and for many of us, that’s not even an option as this land is where we came from, who we are, and a crucial part of our whole life way.
And we are yet to see an example of this so-called “best practice” mine rehabilitation that provides a long-term, sustainable, ethical livelihood from eviscerated land.
The idea “custodians” might approve destruction seems wrong somehow, like the colonial Land Rights legislation isn’t actually working to help people care for country. Instead this little black duck suspects it’s being used by colonialists to find – and in the short-term reward – those who feel comfortable with exploiting it at the expense of those who take its wellbeing and future to heart.
After all, we are still yet to see the thriving farm or other land-based enterprise on a former mine site.
Just as we are yet to see multi-generational empowering business that matches the International Sustainable Development Goals framework arise from any idea that proposes a short-term one-use idea for the landscape and its people.
We have one planet. We can approach it with the framework of “what can we make now that will look good in the quarterly results”, or “what will look nice as a plan for sometime off in the airy-fairy future” or “hey, we can screw this one and terraform Mars!”
Or we can really knuckle down, listen to the Indigenous people – who generally own the least and so have the least money to lose – and live here like we really want to belong to this country for generations to come.
It’s a beautiful country. All of us who live here have an obligation to act as custodians and live with respect. How about we try love, not rape?