Faith – how it grows and how it is expressed – tells us much about the nature of rural Australia.

Story By Amanda Burdon

Eighty-year-old cocky George Clift’s roots extend deep into the black soils of the Liverpool Plains of central New South Wales. Seven generations of his family have worked the land on “Birrawa” and another 19 relatives continue to toil across 20,000 hectares nearby. His family’s heritage is honoured by a collection of portraits and paintings that adorn the hallway of Birrawa’s historic homestead.
When his time comes, George wants to be unceremoniously returned to this earth. “Just dig a post hole and drop me in it,” he says. Not that that’s likely to be happening any time soon – he’s far too busy at present, locked in a battle with mining giants BHP Billiton, the Chinese Shenhua Energy Company and coal seam gas company SANTOS.
For the quest to unlock coal reserves in this region has transformed this octogenarian into an unlikely activist, the godfather of an extraordinary environmental campaign. It is a struggle that has tested the faith of many in George’s farming heartland and called into question government land-use policies, freehold property rights and, indeed, what value our nation should place on agricultural production. As mining activity continues to dig deep into rural Australia, similar sleeping giants are stirring elsewhere.
“I know that coal represents big money, but after 40-50 years when it’s all gone, the soils have been destroyed and the water is toxic,” George says. “One of my long-lost forefathers once chased a bushranger for 12 miles off this place with a sword. What will my great-great-grandchildren say about me if I don’t do the same and let this place get buggered up now? I am responsible for this land.”
When they first got wind of the exploratory drilling rigs rolling in in July 2008, George’s family joined forces with the neighbouring Duddys to move all their largest farming equipment across a vital access road. That makeshift blockade soon developed into a more permanent frontline and the community resistance was formalised under the banner of the Caroona Coal Action Group (CCAG). Through education and concerted government lobbying, the CCAG has sought, ever since, to highlight the potential threats that mining poses to prime agricultural land and what they consider a “lack of land rights” and environmental safeguards under the New South Wales Mining Act.
George and his wife of 58 years, Tommy, were fixtures at the blockade every weekday from 7am-5pm, explaining to whoever would listen why this food bowl at the headwaters of the Murray-Darling Basin, which contributes $332 million to Australia’s GDP each year, even during drought, is worth fighting for. The secret to its fertility lies in the volcanic ridges and their rich alluvial soils, sustained by a vast underground aquifer system holding enough groundwater to fill Sydney Harbour 569 times over.
After the blockade was imposed, several families legally challenged BHP Billiton’s access agreements. Each court challenge has been supported by the CCAG, which has raised about $500,000 in donations. Finally, in March, following a court case bankrolled by the Australian Farmers’ Fighting Fund, the Supreme Court ruled in the farmers’ favour, concluding that BHP Billiton had failed to comply with requirements of the Mining Act in its efforts to gain access. After 615 days, the CCAG lifted its blockade.

This story excerpt is from Issue #71

Outback Magazine: June/July 2010