Rural women battle mines | My Machinery
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Rural women battle mines

Nicki Laws and Sally McCreath have a lot in common. Both are farmers on Queensland’s Darling Downs. Both are mothers. And both are frontline warriors in the battle against the encroachment of mining on their farming communities. The two women shared their stories at this week’s National Rural Women’s Conference in Canberra in the hope they would inspire other women to take up the fight in their areas. Longtime friends, the two have led extraordinarily parallel lives, both growing up in South Australia, living overseas and ending up farming in the same district of Qld. Their communities are just 75 kilometres apart – and yet worlds apart at the same time. Nicki Laws farms 20 kilometres south east of Acland – a community she fears will become a metaphor for modern Australia. Much of the Acland district is prime black soil country. But it’s now dotted with plans for 40,000 coal seam gas wells and 26 open cut coal mines – right in her backyard. “The thing is it’s everyone’s backyard,” said Dr Laws, who is also a vet and textile artist. “What’s happened to Acland could happen anywhere. “It’s alright to say it’s just one little community at threat and that it doesn’t matter but little country towns are the building blocks of our societies.” When she puts up an image of an orange blast cloud (containing oxides toxic to human health) above an Acland mine – subsequently shut and then re-opened – there’s a collective sharp intake of breath from her audience. Nobody in the room wants to imagine it happening to their town. At Acland it already has. It’s now virtually a ghost town with just one permanent resident left in the once quintessential Queensland country community which only a few years ago numbered 300 – and where at least 60-70 farms have been gobbled up by mining. She says that’s had a huge impact on nearby Oakey which has seen little evidence of the jobs and prosperity the mining boom promised. “This was a functioning agricultural economy…but when you close down all those farms, we’ve had another 30 businesses close in our town – the saleyards, the GrainCorp depot, one vet practice, a small abattoir, lots of retailers. “Anything agricultural related or retail related is suffering.” For Dr Laws, part of the Oakey Coal Action Alliance, key now is to try and stop Stage 3 of planned developments – developments she says will put at risk another 5000ha of the highest category of strategic cropping land. The State government has promised Stage 3 won’t go ahead – and Dr Laws says the alliance plans to hold them to it. “We have saved the town site – at least what’s left of it – and a couple of thousands of hectares of land, but the battle is still on.” Nearby Felton is about the only place on the Darling Downs which is off limits to mining. It had been earmarked for an open cut mine and petrochemical plant – that was until last August when the community secured an agreement from the Newman Government that it would not allow any company to develop a coal mining operation in the Felton Valley. “We were the first community in Queensland to take on a mining company and win – and we’re really proud of that,” said Sally McCreath, a key force in the Friends of Felton group that fought the project for years. She believes key to their success was the fact the community stuck together – and that they ignored all those who told them not to bother trying to fight the project and focus instead on getting the best deal out of the mining company. “We went to Acland and saw what was left and what (mining) had done to the community and thought there was no way we could have that.” Mrs McCreath says the group were just “ordinary farmers, ordinary mothers, ordinary fathers” but had been determined to fight to the last – even if, in her case, that meant dressing up as a platypus at the gates of Queensland Parliament. Six months ago they finally got the guarantee from government they had been looking for. And instead of staring down the barrel of an open cut mine they’re now focused on plans for a festival celebrating the biggest resource of Felton: food production. “At Felton we were told that there’s no way you can beat a mining company,” Mrs McCreath said. “But we hope the story of Felton will inspire others and give them strength to really fight on.” Both women are adamant of the need for communities fighting the encroachment of mining to stick together. “Strong communities can make change happen,” Dr Laws said. “At Acland, mining destroyed the community that was there but a new community reformed around our last resident that was determined to support one another.”

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