Monday 20 July 2009 on ABC1
“I think we can win. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll never give in. Long as while I’m alive. If they come on, they take me out in a box.”(George Clift, farmer)
The Liverpool Plains in northern New South Wales has been called the food-bowl of Australia, the nation’s most fertile agricultural land. The key to its productivity is its rich volcanic soil and a ready supply of underground water. Massive aquifers run below the plains making the region almost drought proof.
This land produces massive quantities of wheat, corn, sunflower seeds, canola, sorghum along with sheep and cattle.
“I’ve only lost one crop in 70 odd years I’ve been farming… Jimminy crickets, when the good lord gives us something like that why would you even take a chance of destroying it?”(George Clift: farmer)
The answer to that question is simple. Coal and lots of it. It’s estimated there may be up to one and a half billion tonnes of coal under the plains and in the hills nearby. Now two mining companies, BHP Billiton and the Chinese owned Shenhua Corporation, say they want to explore and mine for coal. To show just how serious they are they’ve paid a staggering 400 million dollars for mining exploration licenses to the cash strapped New South Wales government.
“I respect the rights and the interests of farmers to have a say, to make a determination, but I don’t admire people who come to the table with a prima facie view that there is incompatibility between mining and agriculture because that is just silly. And that’s because we have such a good record and a good track record of doing that.” (Mitch Hook; Minerals Council of Australia)
Inevitably a series of massive coal mines would change the region. Farmers claim there would be pollution from the mines. But their real concerns are below the ground.
They say the massive long-wall mines that would be used to extract the coal would cut into the fragile underground water system, resulting in contamination and diverting it from productive farming use.
Now the conservative, National Party-voting farmers have begun an activist campaign that green groups would be proud of. For the past 12 months they have manned a blockade to stop the mining companies’ exploration work. The action has meant court hearings and the issue has split the National Party. Outspoken Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce was slow to react to the issue but now he’s come down firmly on the side of the farmers:
“I’m a great supporter of coal mining as our major export, but there are certain peculiar areas in Australia where the quality of the land is so exceptional that you should not be compromising that for coal.”
The mining companies fear that by excluding the Liverpool Plains, a dangerous precedent could be set that could keep them off other valuable mining land.
The battle for the Liverpool Plains though is more than a land-use dispute. The water that runs below the plain ultimately drains into the Murray-Darling Basin. As a result the farmers have joined forces with the Greens to demand the Federal Government stops any mining that would destroy water flowing into the endangered river system.
“The lack of logic in the government allowing BHP Billiton to move in on the Murray-Darling Basin like this screams at you.” (Bob Brown, Greens’ leader)
In an attempt to find a way through the issue, the New South Wales government has agreed to a major study that would look at the aquifers that locals say hold the key to the region’s future agricultural prosperity. Will this resolve the clash between Australia’s two great primary industries?
“The Good Earth” goes to air at 8.30pm on Monday 20th July on ABC1. It is repeated at 11.35pm on Tuesday 21st July.