Bus tour takes on coal industry

By Simon Butler

http://www.greenleft.org.au/2009/820/42155

A bus-load of climate change activists made a seven-day journey from Newcastle through coal communities in the Hunter Valley, Gunnedah and Western coalfields over November 20 — 26.

Their message: to fight climate change, a “just transition” is needed — a move away from burning coal for energy, but done in a way that protects the people who work in the industry.

The Just Transition Tour met coalminers and their families in mining towns, strengthened ties with local environmental groups and visited farming communities fighting to stop big coal companies from degrading prime agricultural land.

On the final day of the tour, the activists gathered outside NSW parliament house in Sydney, calling on the government to support a just transition away from coal.

Speaking at the protest, tour participant Warrick Jordan told Green Left Weekly two things stood out for him most.

“One was travelling to Mount Arthur outside Muswellbrook and seeing the extent of coalmining and the extent of what was planned for the future, which was quite shocking”, he said.

“The other thing was visiting a small community at Jerrys Plains who are threatened by a large coalmine. Many have had to move from other areas that have been swallowed by coalmining. I was struck, at times, by the desperation, but mostly the strength, of these people and largely by the lack of support they are getting.

“The response we got was extraordinary and the generosity was very strong. It made me realise that there should be other groups that are helping these communities much more.”

Tour co-organiser and Socialist Alliance activist Simon Cunich said the purpose of the tour was to begin to form an alliance between the climate movement and the people who live in coal-dependent communities.

“We wanted to go out to communities where a lot of people are employed in the coal industry and say that there are alternatives”, he told GLW. “The science of climate change demands that we do transition away from coal, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t leave people without employment and doesn’t leave communities without livelihoods.”

Cunich said the tour also stressed that the participation of affected communities in planning the transition was essential. “We wanted to emphasise that coal communities and workers in [fossil-fuel based] industries need to be involved in the process of transitioning away from coal and need to be part of the decision-making about these changes.”

The Just Transition Tour “guide” was Graham Brown, retired coalminer and Hunter Valley climate activist. He said the most memorable aspect “was the people that we met in affected communities”.

“To a man and a woman they all said coal was destroying their lives and our country’s future”, he said. “What we’re seeing now from all those people is a joining together of forces that we haven’t seen before.”

Tour participant Lindal Richards told GLW the mining industry exacts a heavy toll on local residents.

“We met one man who owns a dairy farm with his wife”, she said. “The mines have encroached onto their lands up around Jerry Plains so much so the groundwater is being taken, their land is being degraded, there is coal dust in the air and they just can’t make enough money from their farm any more.

“The only thing he could do to hold his family up was to then go and get a job in the mine. He was watching his community being eaten up and absorbed into this industry in a way he thought was wrong, but then he had to go work for this industry.”

tour participant Bronwyn McDonald told GLW: “An overarching memory that will stay with me is the women in these communities. In Singleton, they talked about being so tired from fighting a faceless bureaucracy about the toxins in the air from [coalmining] and their children’s health.”

Tour member Rob Martin said the seriousness of climate change meant “the government should be looking to change their attitude. They can’t just say we need the money from coal and that our economy depends on it, because if we don’t look for another option, we’ll be in a very big mess. With climate change it’s something we shouldn’t be using and should be phasing out.”

Newcastle university student Cass Byrne told GLW she was impressed by the farmers blockading at Caroona, who were “really inspiring and passionate about protecting their land” from coalmining.

She said the tour had demonstrated there were “definitely ways that we can move forward to greener jobs and people can still keep their employment”.

Tour member Alain Ashman told GLW the tour had reinforced that solutions to the threat of climate change were within reach. “Just by doing this tour, you can see the options are there and it’s just a lack of political will. I think that the willpower has to come from the people. People should tell the politicians what they want rather than the coal industry.”

Cunich said building alliances with workers and farmers in affected communities was a non-negotiable requirement for the climate movement.

“There is not going to be a transition away from coal unless it’s pursued by a movement composed of the kind of groups we’ve met on the tour, as well as people in the coal industry who are looking towards the future.

“The transition won’t happen either if it’s left to the private sector.”

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