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Generational farmers are preparing to stand their ground as BHP and China Shenhua Energy seek to mine coal in some of the nation’s richest agricultural land, on the NSW Liverpool Plains. By Mick Daley.

Liverpool Plains farms in miners’ sights

Liverpool Plains farmer George Clift and one of the solar installations that powers his properties.
Credit: Dean Sewell/Oculi

It is late afternoon when we finally spot a white kangaroo. Tim Duddy, the Liverpool Plains farmer with a family of five, is elated when our photographer Dean Sewell snaps pictures from the Land Rover as the creature, luminous in the dusk, bounds away towards a tree line.

In his sprawling home, Duddy cooks us a roast and speaks stridently about the plans that Whitehaven Coal has for his seventh-generation family property and its thriving native fauna, including one of the biggest koala populations in the country – and their rare white kangaroos.

“There was a press release put out by Whitehaven recently,” Duddy says, “about the way they were knocking down the trees, where they were going to gently shake them so the creatures would move and then they’d knock the trees over and leave them lying on the ground for a day or two before they pushed them up in a heap, and then you think, seriously, who writes that stuff?”

Sewell snorts in derision. “Killing them softly,” he says.

Duddy laughs dryly: “Just like that song – what was it?”

“ ‘Killing Me Softly’,” our pilot, Leigh, says, “by Roberta Flack.”

Duddy nods: “That’s exactly what they’re doing.”

Duddy’s grandparents moved with their seven kids to this house in New South Wales in 1934. At that time there were nearly 4500 hectares in Rossmar Park, but now his immediate family farm is half that size.

“We grow cotton, corn, canola, sorghum, oats, barley, lucerne, mung beans, chickpeas and cattle. We have a cattle breeding operation as well. My father and mother and younger brother still live here, so it’s very much the family operation.”

Duddy has had an illustrious international career as an auctioneer, horse stud secretary and lately as a Gunnedah councillor and political lobbyist.

“In the back of my mind I always knew I’d return to the family’s farming interests, and shortly after I came back here everything blew up when Ian Macdonald gave an exploration licence to BHP Billiton in April 2006.”

At that time the farming community had opposed Macdonald’s move, citing the serious water issues involved. The then resources minister was later found corrupt by ICAC.

Farmers resistance

“Under those plains is the most significant agricultural water resource in this entire country: 328,000 megalitres of water,” Duddy says. “Half the quantity of Sydney Harbour is actually used for sustainable agriculture production here every year – that water is given as a property right to the farmers in this district. The aquifer doesn’t deplete – it goes down seasonally and by the end of the year it comes back up again.

“These plains are as fertile with as deep a soil as any you will get in this country. The climate here allows us to grow a winter and a summer crop, which is a rarity in this country. So for agricultural productivity there is no other land that outstrips it.

“The ABARES [national agricultural] stats on Liverpool Plains say we are 40 per cent above the national average for crop production every year. It is a rarity. If they do need coalmines, why are we proposing them in an area where we have such enormous agricultural land and water resources? It should be the last land in the country that’s ever dug up for a coalmine.”

In response, the Liverpool Plains farmers, led by neighbour George Clift, formed the Caroona Coal Action Group to oppose BHP. Clift, the 85-year-old patriarch who has vowed the miners will have to kill him before they rip up his land, led a blockade reinforced by tractors. BHP turned tail and fled after that initial action, and has not returned in three years.

“The community united in what I can only describe as a war effort,” Duddy says. He was elected CEO of the action group, a full-time job he’s been doing now for 18 months.

“They elected me because I had skin in the game and I knew it so well from my political experience. I’ve done a lot of work in federal and state politics, and when I call ministers they respect me, even when they may not share my views. When I rock into those offices we don’t get pushed out the door.”

After dinner the conversation moves back to the white kangaroos, and the looming threat to their ecological niche here.

Though BHP has not yet moved on its acquisitions, and many of the ministers involved in pushing the issue have ended up in ICAC investigations, the threat is still very real. Across the valley, the China Shenhua Energy Company has been steadily acquiring properties for its planned mines. The only family yet holding out there are the Clifts. Here at Breeza, farmers are in no doubt that BHP will soon return in force.

“I dunno that the white roo are in as much danger as the Duddy family are,” Duddy says.

“We’re a bit of a rare breed, like the white roo, and we’ve stayed here through flood, fire, famine, pestilence, death duties, bank collapses and god knows what else. And we intend on being that way for a little bit longer, too.”

The kangaroos are indeed a rarity – a genetic anomaly protected by conservative farming methods. But Duddy concedes that they will be unlikely to be a bulwark against BHP’s ambitions.

“At the end of the day they can probably pick the kangaroos up and put them in a zoo,” he says. “But there’s a whole pile of other things that live here that you can’t do that to. The other story that needs to be told is the koala population here is as healthy as any in the country. And there are so many reports that translocation does not work. You move koalas, they die. That’s the end of it.”

While most koala populations are in steady decline, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage has identified this area as having one of the largest surviving koala populations in the country, whose numbers are increasing.

“One of the things about this country – because we are fairly conservative farmers, things like that survive,” says Duddy.

“For example, we had a biologist from the mining company who had all these photographs of endangered animals. And one of those was these little bearded dragons that he said had been last sighted in 1943. And I said, ‘Well they’re all over the plain’, and he said, ‘No, no, they’re really rare.’ And I said, ‘Well, when I grew up the Aboriginal stockman used to bring them home in matchboxes and hold ’em in front of our noses’, and he said ‘No, you’ve got it wrong.’ Well they put traps down there on the plain and they caught 40 of them in one night.”

Such considerations are unlikely to dissuade a state government from sacrificing these farmlands for coalmines, despite many of the public figures involved being compromised by corruption investigations.

Duddy maintains that the farmers are adamant mining will not go ahead.

“The water development that we are proposing at the moment is a $3 million investment, and you do that on the basis that you’re going to be here in 10 years. We’re doing it because we don’t believe we’re going anywhere,” he says.

“I suspect that what we’ll end up with is the protection of Liverpool Plains federal bill and this area will be set aside for agriculture for all time. Everyone thinks the Franklin River was a big thing – it doesn’t hold a candle to what this has got going for it.”

George Clift

When Liverpool Plains farmer George Clift talks about the coalmines the Shenhua company plans to dig on his eighth-generation family farm, he’s understandably upset. He wonders what Australians have fought wars for, if not to protect the land from being pillaged.

“Six of my family were killed during the war,” he says.

Clift has letters written by his great-great-grandmother describing her arrival on these “treeless plains” with her pioneering husband, Samuel Branxton Clift. They selected their first farm here, near Caroona, in 1852 and founded a dynasty that still reaches across most of the surrounding districts through blood ties. Travelling north from Sydney as emancipated convicts, the Clifts left their mark on Maitland, where the suburb of Cliftleigh stands, and Branxton, which still boasts a Clift Street. Here on the Liverpool Plains a Clift Road connects family farms.

George Clift went to school in a horse and cart. He expanded the family’s holdings from one farm to six after leaving school early. He used to play polo against the likes of Kerry Packer.

Though he claims to be uneducated he has a firm grasp of science and technology. He is a progressive man who understands every technical aspect of his job. After 85 years and a stroke he’s retired his official duties. “I don’t do much these days,” he claims. “I’m the fuel man. They get me to go around and fuel up all the machines, takes me about four hours.”

He draws diagrams in the sand with his walking stick as he talks, while in his spare hand he jiggles a screw and washer. He’s got good teeth, a notebook, spanners and clasp knife in his pockets.

A licensed pilot, Clift had all his children learn welding, electronics and mechanics. He’s renowned in the district as a man who can fix or build anything, and with his sons he has built a sophisticated network of 10 self-propelled solar installations that track the sun and fold themselves up if a wind blows too strongly. They power five properties with these contraptions.

“They’re a normal solar system you can buy anywhere,” he says. “You put them in great big spans, take it out to wherever they want it and settle it down tight so the wind can’t blow it away. And then it generates electricity into the power grid.”

He waves his stick – a straight piece of old ironbark, at the southern horizon.

“If they put as much money into sustainable energy as they do into all this other development we’d have sustainable energy for the life of this country.”

The Clift family farm is right in the middle of a two-pronged attack from mining giants BHP and Shenhua. Their 6000 hectares straddle the heart of the Liverpool Plains, atop a coal seam that runs as far as Queensland.

While it’s Clift’s son Sam who now drives the tractors and works the cattle, and who owns three planes and a helicopter, Clift still advises his son.

“It’s beautiful black soil here,” Clift  says, “except the salt levels are fairly high. So you’ve gotta be careful you don’t get too much moisture at the top of your soil or it’ll bring the salt up and kill the crop you’ve got in. You’ve got to grow a crop every five years with a long root system – it takes the water out and down the bottom. You then grow your wheat and canola on the top while it’s wet from the rain. You do that with sunflower crops or something with big roots. It’s just managing the country.”

Clift has vowed to physically defend his land against the mining companies, or the government in their pockets. He says he’ll meet them at the gates with a shotgun.

“I dunno what’s gonna happen, but I think that there’s gonna be a deadly showdown. Lots of people I know say to me ‘Oh, you can’t say that.’ But it’s getting to the stage that before they take my country they gotta shoot me. If the miners come in here, they won’t take me alive off this country.”

Resignation

The essential disconnect between political agendas, mining interests and the need for a permanent, reliable agricultural sector is perhaps the biggest mystery surrounding this issue – one that Clift understands only too well.

“Jiminy Crickets, why can’t politicians see what’s going on?” he says.

“The little dollar, six inches by about four inches, takes control of everyone’s life, and you can’t substantiate it. The government’s in bed with the dollar and it controls everything, but it’ll only control it to a certain stage. Once it dissipates, doesn’t matter how many bloody dollars you got – doesn’t make any difference. If the water’s gone you can throw dollars on the ground all day. It’s not gonna come back to you.”

Sam Clift is less forthright about his inheritance. Indeed, he’s resigned to the eventual dominance of Shenhua, though he’s the last of the farmers in the area to hold out. All the others in the district have sold up, some for as much as six times the market value of their land.

“Quite frankly I reckon the battle’s lost so I’m not really taking that much interest in it,” he says. “If there was a heap of troops on the ground to fight it then I’d be keener. I think the whole bloody lot will go eventually.

“A geologist working for the mine gave me an analogy. He said if you dropped a 20-cent coin on top of that plate there, that’s the Hunter Valley, and the plate’s Gunnedah and the rest. The coal seam from here goes all the way up past Narrabri and all the way up into the Darling Downs.

“This is nice and close to the Hunter Valley so they haven’t got too much freight on their coal, and that’s why all the mines are here, I s’pose. Once you go to Narrabri the coal’s going to be dearer to cart.”

But while Sam Clift says selling up is inevitable, citing the power of government to forcibly acquire their property if they resist the miner’s overtures, his neighbour Tim Duddy says that the last compulsory acquisition of a farmer’s land was in 1973 and reckons the government wouldn’t dare attempt that today. “It’d create civil war for a start.”

Duddy’s opinions are backed by Sue Higginson, principal litigator for the Environmental Defenders Office, whose recent scalps include that of Whitehaven Coal, having just won an injunction against clearing in Leard State Forest, and before that a defeat of BHP in the failed Warkworth mine expansion in the Hunter Valley.

Higginson agrees that mining companies do not have the power to force farmers off their land and that governments are also severely restricted in this regard. Intimidation and creating the impression that farmers are obliged to sell out are the two common factors in this process.

“People sell out because these guys have got a lot of bargaining power,” Higginson says. “They are the biggest players around the table. They come to a landowner, they offer mitigation, or they just offer to buy you out, but they can’t in theory do a compulsory acquisition.”

Governments, she says, have certain powers for compulsory acquisition: for public purposes, such as  highways or national parks. To trigger these mechanisms for a mine would be a real struggle.

“What the government does to get around it, they say that these properties have acquisition rights, so they put clauses in the development consent saying the companies have to negotiate with that landowner to purchase their land,” she says. “It’s such a farce, because in essence it is compulsory acquisition but they’re not actually saying it is, and that’s how they’re getting away with it every day, with every mine.”

George Clift remains quietly determined that his family won’t be intimidated off their land.

“I’ve passed my days of being boss about three months ago, so I don’t own anything here – the boys own it all now. I’ve seen my day, so I’m not putting family up to it. But if they come on now I’ll stand up, and if they don’t stop, they’ll have to shoot me.

“It’s not as if I’m trying to do this for myself. I’m concerned about the whole of Australia. We could probably get $20 or  $30 million for this land, but what would you do with it? It’s a terrible situation we’re in, in Australia.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 16, 2014 as "Mineral farm". Subscribe here.

Mick Daley
is a Sydney-based freelance journalist.

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