A place that was left behind

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the opening of the Stuart Shale Oil plant was the beginning of the end for Targinnie as a living rural community.

A notice in the local Gladstone Observer caught my attention a couple of days ago. It reported the outcome of a minor court case, where an elderly woman had been convicted of breaking into government property, cutting through a barbed wire fence and trespassing into the government-owned block of untended farmland. Although Ms. Dasha Kozloff (67) claimed that she was the rightful owner of the property, she pleaded guilty and accepted a $600 bond.

What had happened? In order to understand this apparently irrational behaviour, we need to go back to the late 1990s. At the time, Targinnie, some fifteen kilometres north of Gladstone, was a rural community with between four and five hundred inhabitants. Today, it is almost empty, and many of the former inhabitants feel grief and resentment about their eviction, which was not only emotionally devastating, but in many cases also led to financial ruin.

Untended fruit orchard in Targinnie, 2014Untended fruit orchard in Targinnie, 2014 (Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen)

The volcanic soil in Targinnie is exceptionally good, and because of its location amidst hills and streams, it is well watered. Since the late 19th century, the area had been used for farming and grazing, but there had also been small-scale mining in the nearby hills.

The community grew, slowly but surely, throughout the last century. A school was built, followed by a shop. There was a pub and a community house. A group of Russian Old Believers, who had first been exiled to Manchuria after the Russian Revolution, and then persecuted after the Chinese Revolution, trickled into Targinnie during the 1950s and took up mango and papaya farming. The Russians are spoken of highly even today, as hard workers, good farmers and loyal members of the community.

The farmers of Targinnie made money by selling meat, dairy products, fruit and vegetables, but many would eventually combine farming with other activities. The Gladstone Power Station was nearby, and so was Cement Australia's main factory. Some commuted daily into town, enjoying the tranquillity and fresh air of the rural life in their spare time, usually farming on a small scale as well.

It had long been known that there were shale oil deposits in the area, but it was only in the late 1990s that plans were realised to exploit them commercially. When the Stuart Shale Oil plant was built in 1998–9, the community was on the whole positive, having thrived on the coexistence of agriculture and industry for decades.

Retrospectively, it is easy to see the opening of this factory was the beginning of the end for Targinnie as a living rural community. Although its owners had assured the locals that they were using state-of-the-art Canadian technology, it soon became apparent that the venture was experimental and prone to periodically high emission levels, noise and occasional explosions. Apart from the noise and lights emanating from the factory, a bad smell, described by an ex-resident as a mixture of fresh bitumen and burning tyres, began to drift across the valley. People began to complain about ailments – headaches, running noses, red eyes, nausea – and a citizens' group was formed (the Yarwun/Targinnie Representative Group). They went to local government, state government and the factory owners with their complaints, but to no avail. In spite of the very perceptible health effects of the factory emissions, local residents were being told that emissions were within acceptable limits. In other words, measurements (however random and incomplete) were deemed more real than knowledge based on experience.

The original shale oil plant was demolished. This one, built on the same site, is brand new, with new technology.The original shale oil plant was demolished. This one, built on the same site, is brand new, with new Technology. (Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen)

By the early 2000s, most of the residents in Targinnie, fearing for their health, wished to leave. Some ran family farms which had been operating for a hundred years. Others had a tightly knit community of Old Believers with their own, modest but functional church off the Targinnie Road; and this community would now be scattered to the four winds. Yet, most people wanted out. Several unexplained cases of rare cancers had appeared. Some died, while others recovered; but the health authorities explained that the numbers were too small to be statistically significant. An ex-resident of Targinnie, a man in his fifties who runs his own business in Gladstone, can barely contain his rage and scorn when telling me about this: ‘Too small to be statistically significant!’ he sputters. His wife was among the cancer survivors.

The properties, located in perhaps the most scenic and beautiful rural area near Gladstone, with excellent soil and good water, could not be sold in the market. Prospective buyers knew about the emissions from the oil shale factory. In the end, the Queensland Government offered to buy all land in Targinnie and turn the area into a ‘State Development Area’ for future use. The residents were given a five-year deadline from 2002 to negotiate the value of their property and complete the sale. In spite of the efforts of a couple of engaged real estate valuators, nobody received a price even approaching what would have been the market price before the Stuart Shale Oil plant. A former mango farmer says that his two thousand trees had initially been valued to zero, while his sprinklers were accorded a value of $5 each. An elderly couple, unaccustomed to large-scale transactions, sold their property for a mere $100,000. Eventually, they ended up in the permanent section of a caravan park, a grim fate considering that their dream had been to move into a flat on the Sunshine Coast.

A handful refused to sell, and clung on to their property. One couple still, defiantly, lives on their land. A few others lease land from the government and use it to graze cattle, but live elsewhere.

Overheating has many unintended side-effects. One of them is cooling Down.

It is within this context that the actions of Ms. Kozloff must be understood. Seeing the sale of her land as illegitimate and fraudulent, she tried – in vain – to take the law in her own hands.

The ex-residents of Targinnie with whom I have spoken all tell different stories about what happened, but they tend to be variations on a common theme, namely that of a thriving rural community being destroyed by distant politicians and big money. They tell of the humiliation of being lied to, of losing trust in the system. Of not being believed and being confronted with so-called objective facts that fly in the face of experience. Of loss and mourning, anger and fear, uncertainty and anxiety. A middle-aged man talks about how one full schoolbus and a minibus left Targinnie every morning to take the nearly fifty local children to Yarwun school after the Targinnie school had been closed down. An elderly man, who continues to graze his cattle in Targinnie, adds that today, there would have been less than five.

Overheating has many unintended side-effects. One of them is cooling down. Perhaps, when something is heated up, something else is bound to cool down? Targinnie remains a blind spot in the story of progress and industrial development in Gladstone. It was too small, too insignificant, too economically uninteresting, to be salvaged when an industrial experiment went awry. Its former residents continue to pay the price.

Today, it is hard to see Targinnie as anything but a melancholy place. You approach it by taking off from the main road, driving through a strip of dry subtropical forest, first reaching the abandoned cemetery and the empty Russian church to the left, partly concealed by trees. You then notice the wide, beautiful mango orchards, neglected and about to turn into a lush deciduous forest. Some houses are standing – empty or rented – some are decrepit, some demolished. When you reach the shop, a natural meeting place for villagers, you come to realise that all that is left is the concrete slab. There is a scattering of grazing cattle by the roadside, some heavy trucks passing on the road, on their way to industrial estates near the port at Fisherman's Landing (where no fisherman, incidentally, has landed for a long time). Eventually, you turn right and leave Targinnie with Gertrude Stein's famous phrase ringing in your ears: ‘There is no there there.’

By Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Published Feb. 10, 2014 4:38 PM - Last modified Feb. 13, 2014 9:42 AM
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