David Pocock locking himself to a bulldozer is great for all sorts of reasons, but a very minor one is that it's finally given me the push I needed to get my arse into gear and write something on the Leard Blockade. I went up there in June with plans to knock up a full-blown longform piece -- interviews with farmers and protesters, schmick footage of people getting arrested, occasional interjections of Feelings, the works -- and flog it off to any takers.
On the drive up I found out I'd gotten a job with Junkee, and I only managed to write an intro before I started steady work and it fell by the wayside. I tried to get back to it once or twice, but procrastination took over and now it's out of date. It'd be a shame to let what I managed to put together go to waste, so I figured I'd stick it here. Skip to the end if it's too long; I've added some stuff that's a lot more relevant to the here and now. Enjoy.
A Weekend In The Country
“Cold tonight, eh?”
The officer asking to see my licence seems nice enough; cops aren’t usually ones for smalltalk. Most likely he’s bored - stamping his feet by the road for hours in the dark, waiting for someone to come along and give him something to do. The car’s owner, James, is dog-tired, so when we reach the police roadblock where the cop’s waiting I’m the one driving. We’ve been on the road for ten hours, come from Sydney to camp at the foothills of the Nandewar Ranges north of Gunnedah. To go easy on James’ battler of a Mitsubishi, we opted to drive through the Hunter Valley instead of the harder route over the Blue Mountains.
Along the way we passed immense towers of dug-up waste, stacked piles of black dirt wedged rudely between acres of rain-brightened farmland, and for a while an immense coal train kept pace with us alongside, coming back from another delivery to the coast. When we pulled up in Kurri Kurri for a bite to eat freshly-printed issues of Coalface, the local miners-sponsored rag, sat in little bundles on street corners, carrying messages from luminaries like state Energy Minister Anthony Roberts and Joel Fitzgibbon that sang the praises of the Hunter’s immense coal industry.
We’re far west of the Hunter now, but Big Coal’s reach doesn’t seem to have diminished with the distance. For four years, Whitehaven Coal has been pushing to develop an immense coalmine near Maules Creek, a tiny village about forty minutes from Narrabri. The proposed area of the mine includes around 2000 square kilometres of the Leard State Forest, a protected area containing the last known stands of White Box gum, along with 31 endangered species.
In 2012, three locals decided they weren’t keen on the prospect of a coalmine for a neighbour, and set up camp in the forest where clearing was due to start. They stayed there for nine months by themselves, blocking the bulldozers and playing host to like-minded souls who would drift in and out, before the camp slowly started growing. In February the state government ordered the protesters to clear out, and banned all but employees of Whitehaven Coal from venturing into the proposed clearing area.
Since then, the protesters have been camped in a paddock belonging to one of the original three locals, a farmer named Cliff. They divide their time between maintaining the camp - sourcing and cooking food, digging toilet pits, helping Cliff out with odd jobs - and venturing illegally into the clearing site to lock themselves to machinery, block roads and generally make Whitehaven’s task a lot harder than it otherwise would be.
For years it’s been a long-running, slow-burning battle, but in recent weeks the stakes have gotten much higher. In May the state government waived the long-standing requirement for logging to cease during winter months, when many animals hibernate and are unable to escape disruption, and the bulldozers finally moved in. In the frantic days and weeks since, the miners have gone hell for leather cutting down as much forest as possible while the going’s good, the camp’s numbers have swelled with out-of-town supporters and locals intent on stopping them, and a growing contingent of police and private security officers have moved in to stand in the middle.
Things have come to a head on the Queen’s Birthday long weekend. Urged on by environmentalist organisations like 350 and GetUp!, a loose assortment of people styling themselves the Convoy Against Coalruption are heading up from Sydney and Canberra to lend their strength to the camp. Together the die-hards and the blow-ins will do their utmost to halt logging until a local group of farmers can file a class action suit against Whitehaven to cease activities at the local magistrate’s office on Tuesday. Dozens will be arrested, but that is kind of the point. The main body of the convoy will arrive on the Saturday afternoon, but some keen beans are making their way up the day before.
Hence why James, his friends Eliza and Ben, and myself, are being stopped at a police roadblock about three kilometres from the campsite, and are politely but firmly being asked to step out of the car.
After conferring with his chattier subordinate, the officer in charge takes over the running of things. He brusquely informs us that we will be subject to a search, car and bodies both, and sticks strictly to the script, answering our questions in legalese in a tone that very much suggests he’d rather not. James is patted down, and Eliza rolls up her baggy fisherman’s trousers at a female officer’s request as three more police go steadily through the car and everything in it, front to back. We watch as they shine torches into empty paper bags, poke around under the seats, go through our clothes and underwear with black-gloved hands.
As we wait by the side of the road we trade smalltalk with one of the more approachable cops, a friendly middle-aged bloke with a beer gut. He’s not local police; he’s been sent here from Wagga Wagga, around 700 kilometres away. He seems blissfully ignorant as to why any of us are here. “No idea mate, I’m just some gumby. They say ‘go here, do this,’ I go.” He shrugs cheerfully. Another cruiser comes down the road, and by the time it reaches us a carload of weary officers from the roadblock is tearing past us on the way back into town. The newcomers switch the cabin light on and sit, less than eager to begin the night shift.
As we stand shivering by the side of the road Eliza films the police on her phone, occasionally dropping narky comments. “Bit cold to be out on a night like this with no reason, hey?” She’s met with a wall of stolid silence from the cops, although.
Eventually there’s nothing left to search, and we pile back into the car. As we inch our way past the police one of the newcomers gives us a half-hearted wave. He’ll be spending a lot of nights like this.
That's all I had time to write. Very soon after we left the roadblock we reached the campsite, and I discovered that I'd only packed half a tent. In between crashing in the tent -- complete with tent poles -- that my new best m8 James had brought and stretching his charity well past acceptable levels for someone I'd met that weekend in various ways, it became apparent that I hadn't really prepared for this exercise enough.
That lesson was reinforced on the Sunday, when a call from my sister reminded me that I was supposed to be flying from Sydney to Alice Springs the next morning and James had to lend me his car so I could catch the last flight out of Tamworth. Sometimes I am very clever, but this was not one of those times.
Poor bloody James. He slept the whole two-hour drive to Tamworth, having been up since 4am to block off a mining road. In retrospect it's probably a good thing I slept through the 2am wake-up call for anyone willing to hike ten kilometres through the bush in the middle of the night to sneak into the logging site. If I'd woken up on time I would've been arrested the next morning, like the few dozen people who did manage it, and I would've spent the afternoon in the Boggabri police station instead of hooning through central NSW in someone's borrowed car.
As we neared the turnoff to the airport I was tempted to take a left into the cemetery that sits on the outskirts of town, but we didn't have time -- my flight was almost leaving the tarmac. If we'd had the chance, though, I would've liked to visit my grandmother. She died a long time before I was born, but I think she would've liked my being out at the Leard.
Not many people from the city make it out to that part of the world, but I spent a lot of time there growing up. It's where my mother and father come from; my mum's parents still have a house outside Coonabarabran, and when I was a teenager my dad would take me out camping around Mount Kaputar, or in the Warrumbungles. Sometimes on the return leg of some huge driving trip we would stop in Tamworth cemetery, and say hi to his mum.
I didn't go out to the Leard because I believe in the rightness of what those protesters are doing from a political standpoint, although I do. I went out there because I am a part of that country, and it's a part of me. It shaped my parents, the people to whom I owe everything. My Nana and Pa made their lives on it. My grandmother is buried in it. To see it desecrated, to see its beauty and strangeness blasted and ruined to make money for people who will never understand what they're destroying, is not something I can easily accept.
I don't even live there -- I can't imagine how farmers like Rick Laird and Cliff Wallace, who've worked the land their whole lives, or the Gamilaroi people, who have called it home for millennia, must be coping with the impending loss of their country. That kind of pain explains how a farmer could willingly host a semi-permanent campsite of up to a hundred hippies on his property free of charge, or how a couple of people could live out in the bush for years on end with nothing but possums and court orders for company to stop bulldozers clearing the forest.
It explains why people would lock themselves to mining equipment for hours on end, willingly subjecting themselves to arrest and the death-by-bureaucracy of the courts that eats away at a person's motivation and finances. It explains how people can lie down in front of bulldozers, face off against balaclava'd thugs imported as private security and get up on freezing winter's mornings to cook breakfast for a group of strangers. It's because no matter what indignities and setbacks they're subjected to, the alternative -- the loss of the land that raised them -- is so bad it demands great sacrifices to avoid it.
People are capable of great things when the cause is good enough, and in this case it is. That land -- forest, farmland, wildlife, water table -- is worth fighting for. With a lot of work and support and luck, we just might be able save it.