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Indigenous People Stand To Lose The Most From This Massive Coal Mine

The former MP, local Indigenous activists and farmers have formed an unlikely alliance fighting to stop the massive mine.

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Once in opposition over land rights, an unlikely coalition of farmers, politicians and the local Indigenous community has formed on the Liverpool plains to fight a massive coal mine proposal.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed

And one of the campaigners, the independent candidate for New England, Tony Windsor, says he’s willing to go to jail for the cause.

Opponents of the proposed Shenhua coal mine in north western NSW say it would damage local waterways and destroy cultural sites - and they’re preparing for the fight of their lives to stop it from going ahead.

The proposed mine would extract up to 10 million tons of coal per year for 30 years and blow a 4084-hectare hole in the ground; an area 14 times bigger than the City of London.

Farmers argue that the size of the mine will have a catastrophic impact on the water table, and agriculture will suffer in an area that's known as Australia's food bowl because of its fertile soil.

Spokespeople for the local Gomeroi community says it will be impossible to protect rock engravings, grinding grooves, scarred trees, and ceremonial sites that have been identified on the proposed mine site.

The Gomeroi are not alone in their fight. Tony Windsor, the previous member for New England who has thrown his hat back in the ring ahead of the upcoming federal election, says he is willing to be arrested if it will help to prevent the mine.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed

“I don’t like breaking the law, but I can justify breaking the law and being with them [the Gomeroi people]. The Aboriginal people out here are sick and tired of the process they’ve had to deal with in regards to cultural sites, not just this mine but a lot of mines, it’s absolutely pathetic,” Windsor says.

Federal member for New England Barnaby Joyce faces a tough battle to hold onto his seat against Windsor, but the Shenhua mine is one issue where the two fierce rivals are in agreement.

Last month the deputy prime minister and National’s leader told the ABC that he would use ‘any ally’ he could to bring a halt to the mine, which Joyce believes is economically unviable.

Windsor’s willingness to be arrested and Joyce’s willingness to oppose his own government’s policy is illustrative of the unlikely alliance that has formed between New England farmers and the local Indigenous community.

“Everyone here has their issues with the mine; like the water issues and animal welfare issues,” says Windsor. “But if the Aboriginal community leads the charge then the rest of us will help.”

Stephen Porter, 49, is one of the Gomeroi people whose ancestors lived on the site where the proposed mine will sit.

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He says the battle against Shenhua has healed a rift between the Indigenous community and local farmers that has been simmering since the Native Title Act was introduced in 1993.

“The barriers have been broken down now between us Aboriginal people and the agriculturalists and just as we’re getting access to these areas again there is a threat from mining,” he says.

“The agriculturists are finally conserving these sites and giving us access to them because they finally realise the importance to us, and now the miners are coming along and disregarding our connection to them. Just for a few dollars, some would let them destroy them, it’s really sad”.

Yvette Kent, Gomeroi elder and deputy chairperson of the Tamworth Local Aboriginal Land Council says the proposed mine has “torn families apart”.

Allan Clarke / BuzzFeed

Kent says people are highly skeptical of the processes employed by Shenhua to identify and assess cultural sites.

Shenhua’s Aboriginal archeology and cultural heritage assessment synopsis found 55 Aboriginal sites within the mining area; eight seemed of high significance. Kent would like to see community elders allowed onto the site to review the company’s assessment.

“The community has heard horror stories of our artifacts being destroyed, our scar trees being destroyed before they were ever recorded. That’s history lost forever, our culture and connection to that place gone forever”.

Porter argues that all of the artifacts and sites are valuable to the Gomeroi and there should be greater access to sites to determine their importance by the whole community, not just a select few.

“The fight won’t be over while it’s in the control of the mining company. Until then we have a fight on our hands,” Porter says.

In welcome news for the alliance, Shenhua recently cast doubt on the project’s financial viability.

Shenhua.

In a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in late March, they pointed to an oversupply of the market and the plunging demand for coal because of low prices as causes for concern.

That news failed to alleviate the suspicion of the community.

“Until they walk away and the deal is completely off the table and the land is back in the hands of agriculture or conservation… then we’ll remain ready to fight,” Porter says.

For Kent, any mining is a blight on Aboriginal land.

“I’m not into mines,” she says. “Mining takes our natural resources and our spiritual home and turns it into a useless hole in the ground”.

BuzzFeed spoke with a representative from Shenhua who declined to comment for this story.

You can read Shenhua's Aboriginal archaeology and cultural heritage assessments here.

Formerly with BuzzFeed News, Allan Clarke is a NITV reporter based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at arielle.benedek+AC@buzzfeed.com.

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