The blacksoil Liverpool Plains in north-west New South Wales have been called the food bowl of Australia, the nation’s most fertile agricultural land.
But this week’s Four Corners reports that the area is turning into a battlefield in a stoush between two of Australia’s primary resource sectors, as farmers confront mining giants BHP Billiton and Shenhua with a blockade that’s intended to keep coal exploration teams off their property.
Mining companies say coal mines can co-exist with intensive agriculture but farmers reject this view, warning they will not give up their land.
The key to the region’s 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.
The area produces massive quantities of wheat, corn, sunflower seeds, canola, and sorghum along with sheep and cattle. The soil there is so good the locals say you can grow anything – even in drought.
But there are also vast seams of coal, and a government greedy for revenue has sold off the rights to that coal to the highest international bidders.
George Clift’s family has been farming in the area for generations.
“They can’t come on and force their way on. They can go and get the Government to come on and shoot me and come on,” he said.
“They can do that. But they can’t shoot me. I can shoot them if that happens.
“I’ve only lost one crop in the 70-odd years I’ve been farming. Jiminy crickets, when the good Lord gives us something like that why would you even take a chance of destroying it?”
The answer to that question is simple: Coal, and lots of it.
It’s estimated there may be up to 1.5 billion tonnes of coal under the plains and in the hills nearby.
Now 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 have paid a staggering $400 million for mining exploration licences 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,” said the Minerals Council of Australia’s Mitch Hooke.
Manning the blockade
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.
Mr Clift’s neighbour is Tim Duddy, the spokesman for the anti-mining group. His family property, Rossmar Park, is also covered by both exploration licenses.
“What we are talking about here is the largest aquifer structure in the whole of this state,” he said.
“We are not talking about aquifers that are suitable to supply a house, we’re talking about aquifers that would supply the whole of Sydney’s water supply.”
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,” he said.
‘A path forward’
Shenhua secured their coal exploration licence in 2008 for another record sum of $300 million. It is the first foray into Australia for the Chinese mining giant.
Joe Clayton is project manager – their first non-Chinese employee. He has some admiration for the farmers on the blockade.
“They are standing up for what they believe in and you must treat that with respect,” he said.
“But look, I still believe in what I’m doing too and and I know that we’ll be able to find a path forward. But you still have to respect the the fact that they’re manning that blockade.”
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,” Greens Leader Bob Brown said.
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?