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Hello

Welcome to this blog, the story of a great big Australian adventure. It documents my travels, life in Australia, and a subject close to my heart – environmental conservation. 

Bimblebox

Bimblebox

Last week was an environmentally focused week.

First, I had a long conversation with a lady campaigning to Keep the Scenic Rim Scenic. I rang her for information about the threat to farming and tourism in the Kerry and neighbouring valleys southwest of Brisbane from coal-seam gas (CSG) exploitation and the expansion of a gravel quarry. We'd seen protest signs as we searched for the Lost World Valley. She told me many things I didn't know, some of them outrageous. One thing led to another.

She told me that the farmers were coming to town on Monday. Firstly, to visit prospective LNP member of Queensland State Parliament (and State Premier, he hopes), Campbell Newman, to throw down their wide-brimmed bush hats in front of his office (he had declined to meet them) in a traditional challenge – to protect Queensland's prime farmland from all-powerful resource developers. The farmers would then attend a Food Security Forum in Brisbane Convention Centre, hosted by Alan Jones, an outspoken talkback radio broadcaster in Sydney and right-wing political activist (and Queenslander, born on the Darling Downs). Finally, they would march to current Premier Anna Bligh's office in George Street to throw down their hats once again (the Labor Party had also declined to attend the Forum).

I went along to the Convention Centre. Country singer and Australian of the Year (2008) Lee Kernaghan kicked off the proceedings, rousing the audience with a suitably foot-tapping number. Alan Jones lectern-thumped about the need to keep miners off Queensland's 4.1 per cent prime agricultural (cropping and grazing) land. He explained that 80 per cent of Queensland (and 90 per cent of the Darling Downs, 'Australia's food bowl') is subject to exploration permits.

Then he introduced four women whose families' lives have been blighted by nearby opencast mines or whose farms are being undermined by CSG exploration and exploitation. Their stories were moving and horrific. One told of 24-hour light and noise from a nearby mine: I immediately thought how she must never be able to fully appreciate the wonderful night skies out west. One described her four-year-old's constant headache, and another her older boy's serious nose bleeds. Another reported her family's battle to prevent a mining company's rail line crossing their property.

A number of things disconcerted the Forum:

• apparently CSG mining companies pay nothing for the vast amounts of water they use (and maybe contaminate) in their extraction methods;

• the Department of Environment and Resource Management (DERM) is under no obligation to regularly monitor dust or noise levels, for example, unless specific complaints have been lodged;

• Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) submitted by mining companies are compiled by ecologists in the employ of those companies and not by independent bodies;

• farmers are not always able to conduct baseline water testing to determine whether or not underground aquifers have been contaminated because mining companies still won't release complete details of the chemicals used in the fracking* process;

• those farmers who sell their land to the mining companies have to sign confidentiality agreements.

The people who attended the Forum were united not by their support for a particular political party in next Saturday's state election: in fact, there seemed to be equal condemnation of both major parties for their CSG policies and cosy compliance with the mining sector. No, what these people shared was a feeling of frustration, helplessness and fear for their 'living local economy' in the future. 

Under new land access laws (2010) and the Mineral Resources Act of 1989, there are notification, consultation and compensation requirements of mining companies in relation to land access for resource activities. 'The Crown' (the state) owns all minerals in the land, and state governments determine the legal regimes for mineral exploitation and production. They grant leases or licences to enter on to land and take minerals. I quote from the Guide to Queensland's new land access laws issued by the Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation.

If a resource authority holder has met all its legal obligations it is an offence for anyone, without a reasonable excuse, to obstruct a resource authority holder, its staff or agents from:
• entering or crossing land to carry out authorised activities           • carrying out authorised activities.

We walked across the river to the Queensland Government offices. We'd been asked to take care walking on the pavements, but I think someone must have decided there were too many of us, so grumpy-looking police on motorbikes had to stop the traffic along our route. Once we were there, there was more rousing stuff from Alan Jones and more hurling down of hats. Drew Hutton**, president of the Lock the Gate Alliance, lifelong social activist and former Queensland Greens candidate, addressed the media who were still with us.

The following evening I attended the Queensland premiere of Bimblebox at the Tribal Theatre in Brisbane. The film was made by Michael O'Connell, whose previous efforts include the award-winning Mountain Top Removal, which highlights the devastating methods used by coal mining companies in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. In Bimblebox he turns his attention to the Australian mining industry. And depressing watching it makes, too.

Bimblebox is an 8,000-hectare Nature Refuge in central Queensland west of Rockhampton. A relatively small area, some would say, but nevertheless an important one. It comprises remnant desert upland that epitomises the Australian landscape – semi-arid woodland, with iconic Eucalypts and Spinifex grasses. As of the winter of 2011, it is home to a precious few endangered Black-throated Finches, as well as many and various animal and plant species. Read all about it here.

The area was 'secured' in 2000: it was bought by a group of individuals concerned to prevent further rampant clearing of remnant vegetation and thus protect Queensland's biodiversity. In 2003 an agreement was signed with the state government under the National Reserve System (NRS). Bimblebox Nature Refuge received funding from the NRS and was covered by a 'perpetual conservation covenant'. 

Australia ratified the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993 and promised a national strategy for a network of protected areas of biodiversity. The NRS followed three years later. With 70 per cent of Australia's land held under private freehold, leasehold or indigenous titles, there is an increasing trend to involve private landowners in such conservation programmes.

Also increasing is talk – both at state and Federal levels – of striking a balance between the demands of conflicting land-use projects. Between coal (the state's economic development) and conservation (Australia's contribution to the planet's biodiversity).

Can the Black-throated Finches save Bimblebox from the clutches of Waratah Coal magnate (and Australian National Treasure, somewhat unbelievably**) Clive Palmer? He has impressive plans for the Galilee Basin, in conjunction with the Metallurgical Corporation of China: to turn half of the Bimblebox area into an opencast mine and establish longwall mining beneath most of the rest of it. The China First Coal Project includes several mines, a railway and a port facility that will ship coal exports through the Great Barrier Reef. If I were Australian, I wouldn't even be happy about the project's name.

After seeing the film, I wrote to Premier Anna Bligh in support of those campaigning to preserve Bimblebox Nature Refuge. I received a reply yesterday from one of her senior policy advisors in which he lauds the Queensland's Biodiversity Offsets Policy. What this basically means is that if Mr Palmer's Chinese deal destroys a priceless remnant ecosystem, he must provide for 'ecological equivalence' elsewhere. Would you be consoled by that if you were a co-owner of Bimblebox Nature Refuge, had put your savings into its procurement and expended huge amounts of effort clearing the area of invasive plants? Offsetting something as irreplaceable as Bimblebox is impossible. The whole idea is a fob-off.

The film also looks at the effects of coal mining in the Hunter Valley and CSG development in Queensland. It features the 10-day Kerry Valley Blockade back in January, when the farmers of the Lost World of the Scenic Rim tried to prevent Arrow Energy from putting their CSG rig in position. After an impassioned plea by one of the farmers, the group are moved on by police. They fling their hats down. And the low-loader slowly creeps forward, almost silently crushing them into the dirt. Bimblebox makes two salient points. One is that the Australian people are fed every day, through the media, the assumption that coal and other cheap fossil-fuel-based energy is this nation's competitive economic advantage: exploiting it is what Australia does best. 

And the other is that, even though the vast coal and gas exports to China and elsewhere are used for carbon-emitting energy generation, those emissions are not added to Australia's already large carbon footprint. It's the perfect environmental crime (Guy Pearse, Global Change Institute).

Think about it... and try to catch the film. More Australians should be outraged.

* fracture stimulation: the high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals into a coal or shale reservoir to create fractures along which gas flows to the well bore once the injector pumps are shut off

**yesterday Clive Palmer accused the Queensland Greens and environmental activists such as Drew Hutton and Greenpeace of being backed by the CIA. See his crazy rant here.

This post was updated on 22 March 2012

Darn crazy Aussie rule of the week

Gadget of the week

Gadget of the week