Part one: Inside the Adani blockade
Camp Binbee is on Birri country, 45 minutes inland from Bowen. It is hot and dry. Across the property, paths have been mowed through the tall yellow grass, making small clearings for campsites in among the skinny ironbarks, spindly ghost gums and the odd lemon bottlebrush. Small domed tents rise out of the long grass, a washing line pegged between trees. The sky is vast and faded blue. It is quiet and peaceful here, but down at the house, there is a hum of activity as the 18-month blockade against Adani’s Carmichael coalmine begins to grow in numbers.
In the kitchen, big metal pots are on burners as lunch is prepared by a cooking group, led today by Will, a high-school teacher in his 60s. Some of the protesters are pressing out dough to make flatbread. Others are on cleaning duty; Sam, a quiet young man from Toowoomba, is meticulously doing the dishes. Out the back, among young banana palms and papaya trees, a group is tending to the vegetable garden. In the workshop a few protesters are on tools; there is the screech of a wood saw, and a series of pings emanate from the “sun shack”, where 30 or so phones are charging.
On a shady verandah, the media and communications crew sit at a long table, working on their laptops. One protester zooms in on a satellite image for me. It is of Adani’s Carmichael mine site. “They have cleared about 126 hectares,” he explains, pointing out the bare brown patches near the fence line, then dabbing at various places. “This is where the borrow pits will go,” he says, “and over here they’re mostly just shifting the overburden to form up a dam.” It is a side effect of being an activist to adopt the industry-speak of the opposition.
The protester zooms out and hovers the cursor over the curve of land tucked behind Adani’s mine area. “That’s Clive Palmer’s mine there. He’s just waiting for it to be opened up.”
Waratah Coal, Palmer’s company, and GVK Hancock, partly owned by Gina Rinehart, each have two Galilee Basin mine proposals awaiting assessment at a federal level, while the Chinese-owned MacMines Austasia and AMCI (Alpha), a subsidiary of the United States-based AMCI, also own tenements to the coal seam.
Dubbed Australia’s “biggest carbon bomb”, the west Queensland seam is one of the largest coal reserves in the world, and it alone, if burned, could shift the earth’s climate a third of the way to 2 degrees of warming.
In the mining industry, Adani’s mine is often referred to as the “icebreaker”. In June, Ian Macfarlane, the chief executive of Queensland Resources Council and a former Liberal minister, told ABC News the other proposed projects in the Galilee Basin will have a “much easier run” once the Indian mining giant lays down the infrastructure and locks in a baseline for environmental conditions.
This is why both sides are so focused on the Carmichael mine. And it is for this reason that Camp Binbee is four hours’ drive from Adani’s mine site. The blockade is strategically placed so actions can be directed all along the pipeline – from port, to rail, to mine.
In the old farm shed, a legal training workshop is under way; further down the hill, new arrivals are doing a series of role-plays as part of their NVDA (nonviolent direct action) training. “You’re in our way,” a man says, playing the role of a mine worker. He glares at Lauren, who is standing opposite him. “How would you like it if I stopped you from doing your job?” he adds.
Lauren looks at the man sympathetically. She says nothing. Lauren arrived at Camp Binbee a day earlier from Brisbane, where she leads a mental health team. She has taken a week’s leave to be here.
“What about my kids?” the man continues, stretching to his full height. “You’re taking food out of their mouths.”
This is the hard bit, even in a role-play. “I’m sorry,” Lauren says, but she still refuses to move when he tells her to get out of his way. When the protesters facilitating the training shift the role-plays into a cop-and-protester dynamic, they remind participants that the decision to get arrested is theirs alone. Are you willing to get arrested, or are you satisfied to move on when the police say so?
There is no judgement here, the protesters say firmly.
The fight to stop Adani from opening up the Galilee Basin coal seam has stretched on now for seven years. “So much has been won,” one protester says. He lists some of the movement’s wins. The Queensland government vetoing a $1 billion loan to Adani, nearly 40 banks and other financial institutions ruling out funding the project, and 14 global insurers saying they will not underwrite it. “There’s the contractors who’ve walked away,” he adds. “Downer EDI, POSCO, Rothschild, AECOM.” The most recent company to sever ties with Adani, engineering firm Aurecon, copped a widely shared spray from Resources Minister Matt Canavan, who blasted the firm on television, calling them “weak as piss” and a “bunch of bedwetters”.
“Plus,” the protester says, “it’s shrinking.”
The Adani project in Queensland has shrunk dramatically. Shifting from hauling 60 million tonnes of thermal coal a year and 400 kilometres of railway with public and private funding, the project is now self-funded and the size of the mine has been revised to 10 million tonnes a year. The length of the railway has halved. If you look at that alone, the movement to stop Adani says the action is clearly effective. Adani is shrinking.
Still, goes the thought, you have to zap it completely, otherwise it will grow back.
Two weeks ago, Camp Binbee put out a “Red Alert” through a network of environment groups and social media. “It’s crunch time,” one woman said as they live streamed from an Adani worksite, a protester locking her arms into a pipe on a white drill rig.
The action came 24 hours after the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, announced on Twitter that she would be introducing new laws to make “lock-on devices” illegal, giving police greater powers to stop and search protesters. The state’s police minister, Mark Ryan, said he hopes to introduce the legislation by the end of the year, while the Liberal National Party opposition wants Labor to green-light industrial sabotage laws that would increase fines and jail time for trespass.
It’s tough talk – but the seasoned protesters at Camp Binbee shrug it off. “Police already have powers to search us,” one tells me. “The amount of times I’ve had my climbing equipment taken off me…”
As for Palaszczuk’s allegation that protesters were using “sinister tactics”, such as rigging lock-on devices with butane canisters? He scoffs. “You think we wouldn’t already be up on charges if we booby trapped our lock-ons?”
It’s a valid point. A more likely reality for proposing the heightened police powers is that the premier can see what is coming down the line.
Queensland has become a flashpoint in the climate struggle.
Since April this year, the Coalition and Queensland Labor have steadily cleared the decks for Adani.
The Coalition kicked off the election campaign, and set its tone, with federal approval for Adani’s controversial groundwater management plan, in spite of clear concerns raised by CSIRO and Geoscience Australia that Adani’s modelling underestimated the project’s effect on local bore water and the risk to the aquifer that feeds the Doongmabulla Springs.
Then, after federal Labor’s bruising loss, Palaszczuk came out swinging, liberated from toeing the party line.
“Enough is enough,” she said with gusto in Mackay, a hub for fly-in fly-out miners, donning a hard hat. Ordering a meeting between Adani, the independent regulators and the co-ordinator-general, the premier forced Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science to a deadline.
It was met.
By mid-June, the state had approved Adani’s management plan for the endangered black-throated finch, as well as its groundwater modelling, which had been submitted 11 times over two years. “We have spent over $1 million studying this bird, which I suspect is probably well in excess of what anyone else has spent to understand the bird and its habitat,” said Lucas Dow, head of Adani’s Australian arm.
There was one last legal roadblock: an appeal to the Federal Court by the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council to overturn Adani’s 2016 land use agreement. In July, a full bench dismissed the appeal. While one judge cited the possible “dubious” activity relating to the agreement, they found Adani had sufficiently adhered to the Native Title Act.
By this point, Adani had already begun construction.
True, there were a couple of other legalities, but nothing major.
First, Adrian Burragubba of the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council was declared bankrupt. Adani lawyers had served Burragubba while he was busking in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall, claiming $600,000 in legal costs.
Second, Adani settled a longstanding litigation brought against it by AECOM, a Melbourne-based engineering firm, which claimed it was owed $20 million for its work on the original rail plan.
Third, construction giant John Holland, which had claimed it had been short-changed by Adani for work on the Abbot Point Coal Terminal, lost its legal stoush over disputed payments.
Adani was due in court earlier this month to face charges of misleading the state’s Environment Department and allegedly undertaking illegal works, a charge that was discovered after satellite and drone evidence of drilling was gathered by protesters and environment group Coast and Country.
Dozens of anti-coal protesters gathered at the Brisbane Magistrates Court to greet Adani lawyers, but the hearing was adjourned. Adani and the department had come to an out-of-court agreement.
As if shoring up its allies and pissing on its foes, the Queensland government had one more announcement to make.
Mines Minister Anthony Lynham declared that the state would open up more land in the Bowen Basin for coalmining.
And so, alongside the ignition of rigs and machinery, there is an acceleration of protest, commercial pressure and civil disobedience.
Echoing the premier’s own words, activists jumped the fence onto Adani’s Carmichael mine site and unfurled a banner over the orange land-clearing machinery: “Enough is Enough”.
In the morning at Camp Binbee, as the fog of sleep lifts and birdsong filters through, a gentle peal of the gong – an empty gas canister hanging from a tree – can be heard. There’s the sound of zips and crunch of boots as the protesters emerge, heading down for breakfast before the morning meeting. Security is strict at camp meetings. No phones are allowed – not even if they are turned off.
It may seem paranoid, but this blockade has its reasons.
A drone is regularly flown over the site, presumably by police, while a contingent of activists here have come from another blockade down south at Leard State Forest and Maules Creek in New South Wales, which was infiltrated by several spies.
A documentary, Black Hole, shows the protesters confronting one of the alleged spies on camera. It is unnerving footage.
Meetings at Camp Binbee are unlike any other I have been to. With an emphasis on consensus, the meetings have clear protocols to be followed, which require a level of self-awareness.
Hand signals derived from nonviolent communication are often used, adding a layer of spectacle for a newcomer. But it seems to work. People don’t speak over others and decisions are made, eventually.
After one morning meeting, there is an “hour of power”, where music is turned up loud and people get cleaning. “Anyone who hasn’t introduced this to their share house needs to!” says a protester.
When it is complete, people peel off into their working groups. One is for “Bunnies” – that is, people who have come to get arrested.
“Oh, it was rather thrilling,” says Rae, 75 years old, at Camp Binbee. She is telling me about the first time she was arrested with her husband, John, now 78. It was seven years ago on the Liverpool Plains in NSW. Rae, a retired science teacher and museum educator, and John, a doctor, were drawn to the first Australian blockade against a coalmine – the battle for Leard Forest.
“About 30 of us walked for 12 kilometres in the dark,” Rae recalls, “with local guides coming out of the gloom to take us across their properties before disappearing again.”
“It was like Dad’s Army,” John quips. The group reached the exclusion zone as daylight came up and they walked around the section that had already been cleared, replanting the forest. By midday, Rae recalls, they were arrested for trespass and hustled into paddy wagons.
The couple, who are a part of Grey Power – think placards that read, “Stop Upsetting David Attenborough! He’s Too Old for This Shit!” – grin at the memory. “We’ve been arrested four more times since then,” says John. “We’re an underutilised resource, us oldies.”
So far, the couple has been fined for each arrest. “We usually apologise to the magistrate for wasting the court’s time,” says John, “but we will explain our position and why we think it is important.”
“We have three children, five grandchildren,” adds Rae, her tone more serious now. “We don’t see it as an option to not be involved.”
Next week: part two.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Part one: Inside the Adani blockade". Subscribe here.