Communities across the Northern Rivers made a strong stand against coal-seam gas (CSG) exploration and mining by declaring their villages and towns CSG-free in front of thousands of protesters at the Rock the Gate rally and concert in Lismore on Saturday.
The rally was part of a wider move to make the entire Northern Rivers region a no-go zone for the CSG gas industry.
After a colourful march through Lismore’s CBD earlier, the rally, estimated to number around 7,000 people from all walks of life from throughout the region, was told how recent actions by several small comunities around the Northern Rivers declaring themselves CSG-free had ‘gone viral’ and spread to many other towns in NSW.
On stage after the street march, Lismore mayor Jenny Dowell was handed several declarations by representatives from Goolmangar, Coffee Camp, North Lismore and Modanville while Clarence Valley mayor Richie Williamson accepted one from people from Ewingar, the first community to do so from the Grafton area.
The declarations followed an initial one by residents from The Channon about a month ago and a YouTube video-clip of the event has since taken off and inspired other communities to do the same thing.
CSG Free communities organiser, Annie Kia, told Saturday’s rally that it was the ‘birth of a new movement’ by communities which were ‘mobilising incredibly fast’ to fight coal-seam gas mining expansion.
Ms Kia said it the grass-roots strategy of empowering communities to make a stand by declaring their areas CSG free was being duplicated in villages and streets around Lismore ‘and spreading into Kyogle and the Tweed’.
‘It’s a mass movement, it’s dynamic, I’ve never seen anything like this,’ she told the crowd.
‘This process is more than just symbolic, but a strong political statement that empowers communities.
‘This movement is spilling over council boundaries left, right and centre.’
She said the high rate of opposition from every village surveyed was ‘not unique but universal’.
Ms Kia said such declarations were made after a thorough survey of the community, which found a more than 90 per cent of people did not want the industry in their area.
After accepting a declaration by 150 people, or almost all the residents of Ewingar, Clarence Valley, mayor Williamson said his council, like all others in the Northern Rivers, had genuine concerns about CSG.
Cr Williamson said Saturday’s turnout reflected the communities’ concerns about the issue, which was ‘more than just about water and land planning’ and the message was continuing to spread.
Cr Dowell said CSG mining was ‘very much a local government issue’ because it risked local water supplies and food-producing agricultural land.
‘We can’t afford to put that at risk by anything.’
She said a woman she met from Coonabarabran on Friday had cried when showing her pictures of a big retention pond for a CSG well, saying ‘we’ve never ever seen dead country before’.
Cr Dowell said ‘our country here is alive’ and producing ‘everything from eggs, coffee, fresh fruit and vegetables, you name it’ and CSG would threaten that.
She also congratulated North Lismore for being the first urban community to declare itself CSG free.
Cr Dowell warned that ‘we may have the fight of our lives on our hands’ against the giant mining companies who will ‘throw money’ and legal actions to counter anti-CSG protests.
But she said they would be hearing ‘loud and clear’ from these communities the message: ‘you are not wanted here so please go away’.
She said the message of the threat to food production also had to be taken to people in the cities ‘and together we will win’.
President of the national Lock the Gate Alliance, Drew Hutton, said the campaign that he’d founded two years ago at blockades against CSG mining in southeast Queensland was starting to take its toll as investors and bankers behind mining companies became concerned.
‘They’re worried coal-seam gas might not be a good investment; they’re worried costs are blowing out because they can’t get skilled labour as the industry is growing too quickly in Australia,’ Mr Hutton said.
He said one company in Queensland had a cost blowout in the past few months from $22 billion to $34 billion.
As a result, mining companies were ‘whingeing’ to governments to remove regulatory hurdles that they claimed were making them unviable.
‘But people across Queensland and NSW are jumping up and down, so governments are having to enforce them.’
Mr Hutton said the ‘kernel of resistance’ of the CSG protests was locking the gate to mining companies.
‘It seems everywhere in NSW they’ve locked the gate, and you people here have locked your town street by street,’ he said to loud cheers.
‘And you’re locking it up with a vote in each area you couldn’t get outside a dictatorship.’
Mr Hutton ‘promised’ that if communities stood strong and locked the gate ‘from the Queensland border right through to the Clarence River, there will not be a CSG well in two years’ time’.
He said CSG was the ‘most radical challenge’ to communities and their resources since the 19th century.
‘In NSW you are five years behind us in Queensland so you have enough time to ensure government legislation is enforced.’
He said it was an ‘absolute outrage’ that gas wells were being put into the Northern Rivers ‘and people had to now fight to protect their prime agricultural land, underground water and environment’.
‘Governments have to realise that mining cannot coexist with agricultural communities who are prepared to fight to protect their land.
’There are coal seams under a third of this country and wherever there is a coal seam, a coal-seam gas company will be sniffing around, but there’ll always be a community to resist them.’
Comedian Mandy Nolan said communities were the gatekeepers protecting the country, and just like the Indigenous community, it was everyone’s responsibility to protect the land.
’We need people power to stop it happening,’ Ms Nolan said.
She said Australia with its coal and iron resources was seen as ‘the quarry of the world, but we’re not’.
‘Here in the Northern Rivers we have a responsibility to the region and beyond that we’re the leaders in this battle; it’s about thinking globally but acting locally, and that’s what we’re doing; it’s really inspiring’.
A Rock the Gate concert, featuring anti-CSG songs, followed the addresses.