This story is part of a series created from interviews undertaken with five women who stayed at Camp Binbee for one week in late 2017 to take action against the Carmichael coal mine development. The interview project was organised by Robyn Gulliver, who hoped that recording these stories would both give a greater voice to the women who have played such a vital role in the Australian environmental movement since its inception, as well as demonstrate the immense sacrifices people often make in their efforts to stop ongoing environmental decline.
Each interview was recorded and transcribed, and then lightly edited and compiled into a narrative tracking the key elements in their stories and the key moments that changed them (note names have been anonymised). The stories begin with a note from Robyn about the context in which the interview was conducted.
Meeting Nora at Camp Binbee
There are different ways to be an environmentalist. Some people do what they can at home to recycle, compost their food waste, and use public transportation. Some people are active in their local communities planting trees in reserves, helping native plant nurseries, or caring for injured wildlife. There has been a groundswell of interest in environmentally friendly ways of living and reducing our impact on the environment in our daily lives.
On the other hand, advocacy – persuading people to change their opinions, behaviours or policies – is a different type of activity.
Trying to change people’s minds is difficult. You invite criticism. You invite contempt. Often, you invite derision. So, what is it that can compel some people with a deep sense of place, love for the land, and desire to care for it to step up and be advocates? Nora’s story gives us some idea of how these decisions are made.
Nora came up to the blockade camp with her husband with a well-oiled camping system alongside a natural tendency to undersell both her skills and her achievements. It took quite a lot of questions to tease out Nora’s story. She credited her family, she credited her husband, she credited the other people in her town for their efforts in trying to protect the environment. It took time to find out why all these factors had combined to result in the quiet and strong woman unobtrusively working in the background helping to keep the camp running.
Obligation to the Planet
I think I have an obligation to the planet, to my country. The soil, the ground. It was the way I was brought up and I just have a great love for it. And I think I have to put my life on the line for it basically.
I was really impacted when I saw the planet, when the first astronauts went up and they showed this tiny little globe, and I thought ‘wow, that’s all we’ve got’. Even though they have all these theories that there are aliens out there, I don’t believe that at all. This is the only planet we have for all these billions of people. We’ve got to stop polluting it for the planet’s sake. This is the only planet we have.
I was brought up on a farm in a rural area and had a connection to the land. My father was a very green farmer. We were brought up to respect all the animals, the goannas and the koalas. We were just brought up very respectful of the land, and the connection to the land. So, I’ve always had that. I just have such a great love for the land, and it was so important to be on country. My father loved the country too, and he just gave that to us. We couldn’t chase goannas up trees, if a snake was there and it wasn’t hurting anything, we had to just leave it alone. We would be totally respectful of what was on the land. And I’m realising now that this attitude was unusual for a farmer back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Most farmers were using super phosphates and clearing. Instead, we were taught to really respect the land.
We had a small farm of about 400 acres. But Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s idea of farming was monoculture, sell your small farm which has got pigs and ducks and hens and have a monoculture. Just clear it and do all wheat: you can’t have these little mixed farms because they are not making a lot of money. Yet mixed farming did work, it was very viable. We grew our own vegetables, and we had a citrus orchard. We had pigs and ducks. We had a farm house and as soon as you got up in the morning you were out. I thought that was a beautiful way of life. I’ve got seven siblings, and we were all brought up and went to private boarding schools. I hated going to school because it took me away from being out there. Farming is actually a way of life. It’s not just a career. It’s a way of life for people and their children.
But the whole idea was to clear those small farms. Have a big area, make it a monoculture of wheat or barley. It impacted the way of life and I think they were trying to take it away, the way of life from people. As I got older, I was talking to people, saying that these are huge issues. I had also started writing letters in about the ‘70s, about different things. Mostly I wrote them when we were at our farm, just about politicians that weren’t looking after the farmers.
The Wider World
After I left home, we went through Afghanistan, Iran, into Turkey, from Kathmandu right across to London over 12 months. I worked in Hong Kong for five years. I flew around the Philippines, Micronesia, and all those areas there and just saw the way those people lived. I think that was another thing that impacted on me: the huge inequality with the western world. We have huge houses with 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms. We went through India where people just live in small, almost shacks. And I thought about this inequality, that it can’t be sustained. Especially when you’ve got a continent with countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh just across the water. In Bangladesh there are so many millions of people living in a tiny area on the confluence of three river deltas. And we’ve got this: this huge continent with only 26 something million people. We can’t just say this is our country and that’s enough. We’ve got to be global.
We decided to move down south when my husband’s parents had retired and all my family lived around. We came back there to land with five acres. We had two children then and they were going to school. We wanted to have fruit trees and vegetables and so we had a bore put down. But after a couple of years there was no water coming out.
This area had been a mining area for many, many years, but it was a small underground mine. And then it was bought by the mining company, and they extended it and wanted to keep extending it further. We were living not very far from the mine, maybe 20 kilometres away. And when we got a guy out to look at the bore, he just said, ‘Well, don’t worry about it. You are not going to get there, you’d have to go down to a further aquifer because the mine’s taken it.’ And when we approached the mine, they totally denied that.
I think because the mine had been there for so long, people had learnt to live around it and the miners and the farmers worked together. But when the new company took over, the situation became very aggressive. That’s when I met our near neighbours; we met over this water issue. Ellen told us her story and that’s when we realised it probably was the mine causing these problems. Also, one of my friends had a beautiful farm and they were living close to the mine. They were actually getting dust onto their windows from the mine; it was so close. And the lights, the mine works 24/7 so they had huge arc lights. So, they had to put black out curtains all around their whole house so they could sleep at night.
Ellen’s a craftsperson and does her art in their big shed along with other things. That was a really good little cottage industry. But, because of the coal dust, some of the people were starting to get asthma attacks when they arrived at the farm. So, over the course of time people stopped coming. The word had got around that you can’t go out there, because of the coal dust and it’s really awful, and it’s noisy.
So, then the mining company was trying to buy farms, but some farmers said they wouldn’t sell. But the longer they refused to sell, the lower the price dropped. By the time people realised it was impacting the health of the families, the price had dropped so much they couldn’t afford to buy somewhere else. Some people are now living in dongas, and have been enduring this for years.
It was very contentious. The pro-mining people were very against the anti-mining people. It was very unpleasant. But the anti-mining people weren’t alone—there were different farms having the same problems. And some of the older farmers in the area were retiring and finding that their children didn’t want the farm because the mine was right there. They often ended up selling to the mine instead, so it split the community. It was hard to have community conversations.
I think the trigger for me was when Ellen phoned up and said that they were going to sell their farm to the mine. I thought I have to do something; I have to step up. We also had been directly impacted, and suddenly we couldn’t have our orchard. So, my first thing was that I started writing letters to the papers. There weren’t these anti-mining movements then, especially not in our area. It was very pro-mining. So, to even just write a letter to our local paper was challenging.
I started following the political sphere too. I could see just by listening to the politicians that they had no interest in looking after the farmers, or the water, or the land. And I thought there is something really wrong here. In turn, I started looking into the whole mining system, including how they run their mines, how they acquire their mines, and the procedures they needed to do to make sure people are compensated. And the company had never followed those procedures. When the company was mining in other regions, they did all that. But they never gave people the opportunity for proper due process. This all came out in court.
After learning more about mining and looking at the landscape of other mined-out regions, I started to think this was awful. Once I was also directly impacted, I really looked at it and thought this is really bad. I have to do something about it.
I’ve been a member of one of the large Australian environmental groups for probably 10 years, but I thought that their approach was just not working. I’m very cynical about the idea that engaging in politics is a solution. I asked a local member about the GABSI (Great Artesian Basin Sustainability Initiative), and he said, “Oh yeah, that is still happening.” I asked him how that can still be happening if you are also letting a 30-40km mine be built at the same time? He didn’t answer those questions.
Jobs and growth. Jobs and growth. You hear it all the time. And even people say that to you now. They have picked up this mantra. Jobs and growth, you know, we need jobs and growth. We are getting a really bad representation from our politicians.
All the politicians at the moment, from the Labor politicians to the LNP, say they support this mine even though the court has said it can’t go ahead. Even the Supreme Court said it can’t go ahead and yet it’s still on the agenda. It hasn’t been ruled out. Anthony Lyndham hasn’t come out and said yes or no to the mine, and he can overrule the Land Court.
I find it is very difficult with our council. You know like, they are just not listening. Our town is a very resource-dependent town; people are very much for the mines. A huge percentage of the area is under exploration leases. And our mayor and our councillors are just totally jobs and growth, jobs and growth, we need the mines, we need the coal seam gas. I think it is just a huge battle in our area. It’s hard.
At Felton on the Darling Downs they had a big fight there against Abri Energy and they won. By that stage, Acland had happened, so they were very alert. The one man left standing in Acland, Glen Butell, had gone to Felton and said look, this has happened at my place, you wake up. So, they were all ready for them in Felton when they came, they had been forewarned. Poor Acland was already taken.
When my sister came back from visiting the Hunter Valley, she showed me some photographs of the mining there. She was quite distressed, so I thought we have got to do something. That’s when they were having that roadshow for Adani in Brisbane so I went to that, and I met up with some other people interested in the problem. One person knew someone else and so then we decided to start a local Stop Adani group. We thought we’d just give it a try. I just felt I had to do that. It was such an important issue.
Initially when we advertised, we got quite a few people saying they were interested, but they didn’t follow up by coming to meetings. The first few meetings were just three people. But now we’ve got probably 100 on the supporters’ list. And they support us. If we have an action or we do something, then they will come along. For example, we had a lot of people come along when we were blocking Commonwealth Bank and Westpac Bank.
However, even though a lot of them will come along, it’s still hard. It’s challenging organising. Sometimes I think it’s just about picking a time that suits people. I live more than 20 kilometres out of town, so it’s over a 40 km round trip to go to all these things. I’ve found the group challenging also because it’s hard to get people involved passionately. They will come and do things and wave banners. But not all people are so passionate. They’ve always got something more going on: ‘I’ve got to do this, got to do that.’ I don’t think they realise or accept that it’s such a huge issue.
I do get tired of it. But to get up and keep going, I just have a look at the Galilee Basin, the building of it and I just think that is not happening. You have to stop it.
At work I’ve been in management and I feel that I’ve been quietly aware of my capabilities, because I’ve been very confident in my professional career. But I don’t think I would stand for Councillor or politics as I wouldn’t have the confidence. I’ve probably always stepped back outside of work. I’m just happy to be in every action that is happening. I am happy to research. I am happy to write politicians, ring politicians. Just be right there in their faces.
But coming up here, I see the young people. The young people are right into it. I’ve been so impressed coming up here. I think there’s hope. I don’t know how many, or what percentage of young people there are here at camp, but they are just so passionate. And I’ve also thought we just have to really go for it now. It’s got to be frontline action.
I think frontline action works if you can get media attention from it. And the thing with social media today, you can put it out there, and what you see is people really respond to it. I think they’re very happy that someone is out there fighting this. My daughter is totally with us. Lisa’s daughter is too. Mostly they are very environmentally aware and doing things. Almost all of my sisters and brothers are all very supportive. Lisa’s been arrested a number of times, Susan’s been arrested: all the cousins say, those Aunties are at it again!
I’ll do whatever it takes.
I just think that we are destroying this planet at such a huge rate, that if we don’t do something really drastic now, we are going to lose a lot of our beautiful places. We are going to lose them. I’m particularly concerned about the Adani mine, because it’s in an area where there are some beautiful rivers, the Belyando River and the Carmichael River. They will be impacted by this mine. I’ll do whatever it takes.
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