Home to nearly 400 species of plants and animals, including 34 threatened species, the 8,000-hectare Leard State Forest in north-west New South Wales represents one of the most pristine remaining examples of the endangered Box-Gum Grassy Woodland environment, and forms part of the Gomeroi Nation, one of the largest indigenous nations in Australia.
The future of Leard State Forest has been thrown into doubt by the approval of significant mining expansion in the region. There are already two operating open-cut coal mines with plans to expand within the forest or in the vicinity, dubbed Boggabri Coal (owned and operated by Idemitsu Australia Resources) and Tarrawonga (pictured above - a joint venture between Idemitsu and majority partner Whitehaven Coal, which operates the mine).
Tarrawonga, currently operating on the periphery of Leard State Forest, has secured approval to expand eastwards into the forest. Furthermore, Whitehaven is currently building a new, larger mine, the Maules Creek Project, in the forest. The 2,000-hectare, $767m mine, which began construction in January 2014, will ramp up to a yearly production of 13 million tonnes of coal over a 30-year operating life, with the product to be transport to the Port of Newcastle for export via a new rail line. First coal from the new mine is expected to begin transport in March 2015.
All images courtesy of Leard State Forrest.
The Maules Creek Project and the expansion works have drawn criticism since their early days in 2010, but resistance ramped up considerably when construction on the Maules Creek Project was given the governmental go-ahead. The Front Line Action on Coal (FLAC) alliance was set up to protest the mine's construction and to hinder it using non-violent direct action, including the 'Leard Blockade', which was set up in August 2012 and is still ongoing.
According to the FLAC website: "The government has failed us and now we have little option left but to take action ourselves." The main FLAC campsite was originally set up within Leard State Forest but was later moved to the property of local farmer Cliff Wallace.
Sporadic tension has flared over the alleged infiltration of activist groups by corporate spies employed to feed information about protest actions to the police and the companies involved. "We were having trouble doing anything around the area at one stage without the police being there ahead of us or right on top of us," Wallace told The Guardian in June. "We expected someone. You don't run this sort of show without having a few spooks or people who think they can gain by sticking a knife into you."
Corporate security types aren't the only ones guilty of illegal or unethical behaviour, however. In January 2013, environmental activist Jonathan Moylan issued a fake press release stating that a key loan from ANZ Bank to Whitehaven's Maules Creek project had been withdrawn. The hoax was reported as genuine by several media outlets, triggering a twitch in the market and temporarily wiping $300m from the company's share price. Moylan pled guilty in court to disseminating false or misleading information affecting market participation and in July 2014 was handed a 20-month suspended sentence.
Community road blocks have been a common strategy for anti-coal campaigners in Maules Creek, with campaigners holding up equipment and vehicles en route to the projects. The broad anti-coal alliance has drawn environmental activists from around Australia, who argue that the environmental assessment process for the mine projects has been rushed and approvals have been awarded in spite of outstanding data, while the environmental offsets offered by the companies will likely require decades before they offer an equivalent habitat. The combined mining projects in the area could cut down up to 5,000 hectares of woodland, representing more than half of Leard State Forest's total area, threatening local wildlife including the koala, the swift parrot and the Corben's long-eared bat.
Wider environmental issues include the carbon emissions from the projects; the Maules Creek Project alone will produce an estimated 30 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. As well as ecologists and environmentalists, the cause has attracted broad support from local farmers, who fear the increased water requirements of the expanded mining operations will make their farms unviable.
Other forms of direct action taken at the mine sites include protestors 'locking on' or attaching themselves to mining equipment like water pumps and excavators to deny access to workers. Campaigners have also suspended themselves from poles, tripods, trees and even major pieces of infrastructure including a railway bridge. In February 2014, two activists dressed as bats climbed a coal loader at Boggabri mine and stopped work.
These actions have prompted hundreds of arrests over the course of the campaign, with more than 80 arrested on a single day in April 2014 during one of the larger protests at the Maules Creek mine. "Everyone has the right to protest, but it should be done according to the laws that keep people safe and protect the property of others," said Steven Galilee, CEO of regional industry association NSW Minerals Council. "Construction sites are potentially very dangerous places for trespassers. These reckless actions must stop before someone gets killed."
The ongoing protest and blockade has relied on staunch support from the local Gomeroi community, the traditional owners of the land on which Leard State Forest has flourished, with several Elders expressing outrage at what they see as the desecration of sacred sites in and around the forest. The community is also angry that they have been denied access to sacred sites, even when those sites are on public land outside of Whitehaven's lease area. The spiritual ceremony and march pictured above was held in the nearby town of Gunnedah in January 2014 after the community was threatened with arrest if they went ahead with the ceremony outside the Maules Creek mine site.
"The denial of access to our sacred sites is a retrograde step in reconciliation and example of the deep seeded disrespect, arrogance and hostility towards our culture and our people by Whitehaven Coal," said the Gomeroi in a community statement.
Whitehaven, meanwhile, has been working to downplay the importance of the area within the boundaries of Maules Creek mine, and in February 2014 announced that assessments carried out at the company's behest by the University of Queensland's Culture & Heritage Unit and an arborist from Global Soil Systems, with the participation of Registered Aboriginal Parties, found no evidence to suggest the land was a traditional burial site, contrary to Gomeroi statements.
The Maules Creek Project, meanwhile, has been progressing at a steady pace despite every attempt to delay its construction. Whitehaven's June 2014 progress report for the project stated that it was on budget and on schedule to transport its first coal on the new rail line in March 2015, noting that the construction of the mine was more than halfway complete and the railway just behind at 43% complete. The company's goal is to mine six million tonnes of coal in its first year of operation.
In mid-August, Whitehaven announced that the first intake of new permanent employees had begun work at the open-cut mine, with 100 more set to join them by February 2015. The mine will eventually employ around 450 people, with the company estimating it will pump A$40m a year into the local community through wages, as well as committing to a plan to employ 10% of the mine's workforce from the Aboriginal community within five years.
Despite the ongoing spirited resistance of coal's opponents in Maules Creek, it appears the project and the other mine expansions are now too far along and have too much momentum to be stopped in their tracks. Perhaps the increasing economic benefits the industry brings to the local area over the next few years will help thaw the tensions between mining companies and the community. Whatever the case, there will clearly be no shortage of civilian watchdogs to keep a sharp eye on the region's miners and make sure they keep their promises.