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June 25, 2021

Dispatches from the Adani frontline

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Lisa, Danny and Ella made the pilgrimage from Mullumbimby. Photo Mia Armitage

Mia Armitage

Forget ‘clicktivism’, where concerned citizens take a stance through social media: anti-Adani protesters from all over Australia, millennial through to baby-boomer and beyond, are taking direct action.

Twelve environmental activists have returned to the northern rivers from Bowen, in north-central QLD, where they participated in a protest camp partly aimed at stopping the proposed Adani mega-mine.

The pilgrimage began in Coffs Harbour for some, before protesters from the Byron and Tweed shires climbed on board a repurposed yellow school bus last week destined for Camp Nudja, about eighty kilometres southwest of Adani’s coal export port at Abbot Point.

Protesters included a naturopath in her forties from Bangalow, a filmmaker and a worker, both in their twenties and from Mullumbimby, and a former schoolteacher and former builder in their sixties living in Pottsville.

Activists charged

Liisa Rusanen described herself as a mother of two from Coffs Harbour who had never ‘locked on’ in protest before.

But last week she joined other anti-coal protesters to discreetly plan a very public anti-Adani protest: a temporary shutdown of the company’s coal-export operations at Abbot Point.

‘We knew how to stop the conveying belts before we got there,’ said Ms Rusanen.

‘We were locked on for about six or seven hours in the end.

‘The first thing police did when they arrived was take our food and water, and they told us we were welcome to have food and water if we released ourselves, but they weren’t going to give it to us as long as we were locked on.’

QLD police arrested Ms Rusanen and four other protesters locked to the conveyor belt on Thursday.

Danny Skerret, 31, a carpenter, and sister Ella Skerret, a 26-year-old artist, both from Coffs Harbour; nurseryman John Ross, 68, from Coramba, near Coffs Harbour; and Townsville resident Megan Armstrong, 47, are due to appear alongside Ms Rusanen in the Bowen courthouse in February.

They are charged with trespass, interfering with a port’s operations, high-risk activity and not obeying police direction. Mr Ross told The Echo before the lock-on he was aware of and willing to accept the legal consequences of his actions.

Paid protesters missing in action

Paris, a young woman working in Bowen, who did not wish to have her last name published, said she understood protesters at the camp were ‘highly paid’ to be there.

But Mr Ross said it was costing him money to protest and nobody at the camp was paid.

The Echo spoke to around fifteen protesters at Camp Nudja, where up to thirty people camped in mid-January.

Most said they were employed; three were retired; one said he was a student.

All protesters interviewed said they were giving up time and money to be at the camp.

Mr Skerret said his mission locking on was to generate media interest in an issue and ‘how important it is to act now’.

He said the lapse in coal export activity during the lock-on effectively cost Adani money, and ‘investors will be taking note of that; it’s an incentive for them not to invest in dirty coal companies’.

Whitsunday Region councillor Mike Brunker, who reportedly once worked as a coal miner for eight years and wants more development at Abbot Point Port, has previously said, ‘Coppers babysitting these protesters’ meant police resources from Townsville would be stretched.

But Mr Skerret said aside from the police cutting team, there were ‘three or four’ officers ‘just standing around,’ at Abbot Point Port on Thursday.

‘We made it clear to police that if they have any other issues to deal with, we’re very happy to be dealt with after the more important issues,’ Mr Skerret said.

‘We don’t want to take up police resources, that’s not the aim of the action.

‘We’re happy to stay there. We’re not in real danger and we’re happy to be there.’

Mackay district police inspector Steve O’Connell has said ‘policing arrangements are in place to deal with what they undertake’.

Community divided

Cr Brunker is also on the record saying the people of Bowen ‘despise’ anti-Adani protesters camped in the area, while member of parliament for Burdekin and state shadow minister for mines and resources, Dale Last, has called for the people of north QLD to unite in support of mining.

But The Echo spoke to a disability services worker in Bowen who said many people in the town shared her anti-Adani views.

Like Paris, the woman wished to remain anonymous owing to her fear of possible confrontation with other Bowen residents.

She said while she welcomed protesters, their support would not encourage anti-Adani Bowen residents to speak out because, ‘we have to live here’.

Few people in Bowen agreed to go on the record with comments on Adani and protesters, but responses seemed evenly divided.

People in support of the proposed coal mine cited Bowen’s high unemployment and a desire to see Australia’s natural resources exploited.

The unemployment rate in the Whitsunday local government is 5.3 per cent, QLD government data showed.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

The region is home to the Collinsville coal mine, which returned to full-time operations in 2016–2017, but less than seven per cent of employed Whitsunday residents in the same period worked in mining.

The figure represents roughly a thousand people, while the QLD government recorded another 495 fly-in fly-out workers in the area spread across various projects including solar farms.

Hospitality was the main employment industry, with nearly 16 per cent of employed people working in accommodation or food services, followed by retail (9.5 per cent), farming, forestry and/or fishing (9.3 per cent).

Construction made up more than seven per cent of all employment, in a year when three solar farms were built in the area and the post-Cyclone Debbie recovery began.

Mango farmers in the region have had mixed extreme results this season. Cyclone Debbie destroyed trees, leading to halved production on some farms but weather conditions have created a profit-draining glut for other farmers with mangos being given away in some areas.

Queensland Coordinator of Farmers for Climate Action Michael Kane said he has yet to meet a single farmer in support of the proposed Adani mine. Farmers are mostly concerned about Adani’s access to groundwater in the Galilee Basin.

Inspiring week

Ms Rusanen added that after being released from police custody in Bowen, the group went to buy snacks and a local stopped us. ‘He recognised us from the news that morning and he stopped us to tell us how grateful he was on behalf of many locals in the Bowen area who aren’t happy with what Adani is doing. He wanted to make sure that we knew there were lots of locals like him who didn’t support Adani and were really grateful that the protest camp was there.’

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