David and Goliath at the East End mine

Allow a short prelude. Early in my Australian fieldwork, I had the opportunity to sit in on a public consultation concerning the Queensland Government's plans for the Great Barrier Reef. Being considered a matter of national importance, the Federal government (Canberra) is also involved in these plans.

At the meeting, where various interest groups (known in such circles as ‘stakeholders’) were present, the two levels of government first presented their plans for ensuring the continued survival of the vulnerable reef, much of which has been designated a national park, in the face of risks such as mining, port expansions, agricultural runoffs, increased maritime traffic and other dangers such as the crown of thorns starfish and the increasing acidity of the ocean.

Everybody had their say, and all were invited to submit comments on the reports.

It is well known that the world's largest coral reef, stretching from the Torres Strait to Gladstone, is in a precarious situation, and that current plans to expand coalmining in the hinterland not only represent a potential threat to the reef, but also an indirect threat through the effects of greenhouse gases on the global climate. Groups present at the meeting included recreational and professional fishermen, farmers' associations, local councils, industrial interests and environmentalists. Everybody had their say, and all were invited to submit comments on the reports.

A seasoned environmental activist with a natural science background took the floor several times during the meeting, pointing out oversights and debatable points in the reports, but ended by asking, rhetorically, if there was any point at all in inviting comments on government reports of this kind. Submissions from stakeholders and the public never made a difference in the final instance anyway, he intimated. He felt he had been there many times before and was openly asking if he was wasting his time collecting and analysing data, reading long-winded EIS'es (Environmental Impact Statements) and sending detailed submissions to influence political decisions. Naturally, the question did not warrant an explicit response, but neither did the government representatives roll their eyes dismissively. They may even have symphatised with his exasperation.

Environmental Impact Statements (EIS’es) at the Gladstone Library. Who is meant to read them? (Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen)

A fundamental question in social science concerns where and how important decisions are taken, and with which consequences for whom. In the Overheating project, we are interested in different levels of decision-making, exploring the articulation of local interests and communities with different levels of politics and economic interests, as well as comparing different kinds of knowledge – expert knowledge and knowledge based on experience are two. Here is another story from the region.

Since 1995, an organisation called the East End Mine Action Group (EEMAG) has been campaigning on behalf of farmers demanding redress and compensation from Cement Australia (formerly Queensland Cement & Lime), and demanding that Cement Australia control their consumption of groundwater responsibly in order to allow farming and grazing to prosper in the region.

The cement factory at Fisherman's Landing about ten kilometres north of Gladstone is Australia's largest, and much of its production is exported. In addition to the factory, Cement Australia owns a limestone mine in the rural township of Mount Larcom, supplying the factory. The open-cut mine has operated since 1964. Farmers in the area were wary of later expansions of the mine, principally arguing that the water consumption of the mine was already too high and threatened to lower the water table, making agriculture and livestock raising – already precarious due to relatively low rainfall – very difficult. Moreover, they argued that the depletion of underground aquifers due to an overexploitation of groundwater could make the soil subside into cavities in places.

In 1974, local farmers were surprised to discover that mining companies were, under Queensland law, allowed to drill boreholes on private land. This was when exploratory drilling took place; later in the year, the cement company purchased 2,200 hectares of the district's most productive land in order to expand the mine. A protest group was formed immediately, but the Mount Larcom farmers were disappointed to learn that people in Gladstone were generally in favour of the mine expansion, as it would bring jobs and prosperity to the region. In its way, the mine also appeared to be sustainable. As a historian of Gladstone writes, in a book entitled Gladstone: The City That Waited (which celebrates the progress and development that industrialization finally brought to the city after a hundred years of thwarted hopes), the lime was transported to the factory in the form of slurry, ‘through a twenty-four kilometre underground pipeline from East End to Fisherman's Landing, thus producing no environmental hazards.’ It was nevertheless pointed out time and again by the local farmers that the use of prodigious quantities of water at the mine did, in fact, produce some undesirable side-effects detrimental to their livelihoods.

Rural scenery in Mount Larcom (Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen)

Alec Lucke, who lived and worked on a farm in the area until his retirement in 2006, is one of the rural activists who has for decades been engaged in battle against Cement Australia and political decisions which, in his view, have been grossly misguided. In his detailed and meticulous book Road to Exploitation, he describes meetings with politicians and bureaucrats, lawsuits against the company, independent studies documenting water depletion, and the slow encroachment of the community by the expanding mine. Having moved to another state after selling the family farm at a low price (‘after all, it was now virtually surrounded by the mine,’ he told me), he continues to invoke hydrogeological studies and law in order to call the company to account. Throughout its existence, he concedes, EEMAG has achieved little. 24 landowners have received replacement water supplies from Cement Australia. Their greatest achievement, perhaps, consists in continuing to exist and continuing the struggle. He adds, not without pride, that the lawyers and scientists commissioned by the farmers' organization to assist them, worked without pay half the time. To Lucke, this fact testifies to the existence of a community bent on representing the interests of ‘the little man’ facing powerful, transnational adversaries.

In the book, Lucke makes some observations of a more general kind. A man of little formal education, his long career as a rural activist has sharpened his analytical acumen and stimulated his thirst for knowledge. He argues that the specific, unique circumstances of Mount Larcom are relevant for people elsewhere who are affected by expanding mining, since the logic of corporations confronting locals is similar everywhere. He also says, based on his own experiences, that there is a very important difference between the local investments typical of the previous generation and today's huge open-cut mines where both the scale of the operations and the complexity of ownership make it difficult for local communities to engage effectively with the corporations.

This view is confirmed by the current leader of EEMAG, Peter Brady, an ex-schoolteacher and farmer living in and committed to Mount Larcom. In his view, it is the successive mine expansions, not the mine itself, that threaten, and have contributed to the decimation of, the farming community in Mount Larcom. Although the expanding mine is a main cause, it is not the only one. The centralisation of certain services, notably the abattoir, led to the incereasing isolation of the area.

The East End Mine (Photo: Thomas Hylland Eriksen)

Cement Australia, at the same time, takes great pride in its environmentally sound practices and its responsible community involvement, which includes sponsorships and support of a variety of activities around Gladstone. This does not preclude the possibility, argued by the EEMAG group, that its activities have made agriculture in the area more precarious than it would otherwise have been.

This is where anthropological analysis comes in: How are the decisions made, what is the relative role of knowledge and power in the process, why do different actors not only take different positions, but also present so different, often opposing descriptions of the facts, and to what extent do the different kinds of knowledge influence the actual decision-making process? What happens to trust in expert knowledge and government authorities when their conclusions directly contradict personal experience?

            To be continued on a larger canvas.


Thanks to Peter Brady.

By Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Published Mar. 19, 2014 9:03 AM - Last modified Mar. 20, 2014 10:37 AM
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