Mining coal has long been perceived as the ‘engine room’ of Queensland’s economy and exploitation of our great mineral wealth is supported by Governments of all persuasions. However if coal is one great resource of our state, then our wonderful natural environment is the other, from the Great Barrier Reef to the tropical rainforests and desert uplands. Now, in this decade, we find ourselves at a decision point. It is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot allow coal mining to continue unabated and expect to our natural treasures to survive.

For politicians, the possibility of transitioning the state to be less dependent on coal is far from consideration, or at best considered fanciful. Indeed, despite international commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions, the Queensland coal industry is currently undergoing unprecedented expansion, with 21 new coal projects in advanced stages of development.

Escalating Impacts

As coal mining quietly grows to cover larger and larger areas of the state, what value is given to the rural communities that are being broken apart, such as Acland and Wandoan? What value is given to the productive agricultural lands that are threatened, in places like Felton, Warra and Kingaroy? And what value is given to the areas of conservation significance such as Bimblebox Nature refuge and the Carey Valley Wetlands and that are threatened with becoming holes in the ground, or rail corridors? These areas are all subject to planned coal mining and have no legislation to protection them from uncertain futures.

The resistance of farmers against coal mining has become a high profile issue in southern Queensland and the Liverpool plains of New South Wales, where farmers have been successfully blockading coal companies out of one property since July 2008. As coal mining impacts more areas of biodiversity, land owners and conservationists are also resisting and building support for their cause. Conservationists and farmers may appear to be unlikely allies, however they share a strong resolve to resist the destruction of their land by mining. In this they also share similarities with two centuries of struggles by indigenous peoples.

At the last state election, climate activists, conservationists and some farming groups joined forces to push the government for to begin to restrict coal mining on agricultural land and nature refuges. Reflecting this, the restriction of coal mining, at least the agricultural lands, is policy of both the Greens and the Liberal National party.

In urban centres coal has become a focus for many climate oriented organisations and community groups for its dominant role in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions as well as its direct impacts on the environment, health and food security. For the last three years the Newcastle community has turned out in kayaks and canoes for annual peaceful coal port blockades, and last October marked the first similar blockade in Brisbane. Many people even risked arrest to show their concern, and demonstrations of civil disobedience at coal ports, railways, mines and power stations exploded in 2008, with over are 160 people arrested at demonstrations that year.

While these pockets of resistance give hope that much more can be saved from coal mining, many areas of biodiversity and conservation significance face an uncertain future, and the vast majority of coal projects continue to be approved. Community groups seeking to create change face the deeply ingrained interests of a well-funded and politically powerful coal lobby.

Building alliances between the diverse groups impacted by coal, and sharing their stories to engage many more concerned people, community-lead action may be powerful enough to turn the tide and begin a measured transition to a sustainable future. Transitioning our state away from coal dependence will be a long process, but it is imperative that we at least start looking in the right direction, by right now saying “no new coal”.

About Six Degrees:

Six Degrees is a coal and climate campaign of Friends of the Earth Brisbane. We work with communities and groups across the state to reduce Queensland’s dependence on the coal industry and to ensure a just and measured transition to a safe climate future.