The latest from the Leard State Forest

Phil Evans

Two years after construction began, Whitehaven Coal's Maules Creek mine continues to expand into the critically endangered woodlands of the Leard, but not without resistance. Both the miners have been given approval to clear the forest – but only in a six-week window from February 15 to March 31. This short period is to protect the 34 threatened or endangered species in the forest from clearing during breeding or times of torpor – a hibernation like state during the colder months. Another condition is that clearing must not happen if the temperature rises above 35 degrees. Local ecologist Phil Spark explains that, "The 35 degree C limit was set because when it is too hot the animals hide in their hollows to conserve energy. Clearing during this heat results in higher mortality."

Once the bulldozers started up, breaches of the 35 degree condition became apparent according to Front Line Action on Coal – a group set up against the destruction of the Leard State Forest for coal. The claims were taken to the NSW Environmental Defenders Office who wrote to Whitehaven and the NSW Department of Planning, calling for an immediate investigation of the alleged non-compliance and stricter measures to prevent Whitehaven coal ignoring the rules.

This kind of 'green policing' and regulation watch remains critical to the campaign alongside concerted non-violent direct action seeking to slow the work and raise the awareness of regulation breaches which see the embattled miners in even more financial and political strife than what they already find themselves.

In early 2014, a protection treaty between the Leard Forest Alliance and Gomeroi traditional custodians was signed on Gomeroi / Gamilaraay country. The campaign to protect Leard State Forest from Whitehaven Coal and Idemitsu Resources bulldozers was just about to reach fever point – and farmers, greenies and traditional custodians were closer than ever to speaking with one voice on the issue.

The Gomeroi mounted a formidable campaign based on legal and political strategies to protect sacred sites and use existing legislation to ensure that their cultural heritage was protected. In the years preceding this latest round of forest clearing by Whitehaven, no Gomeroi / Gamilaraay traditional custodian was arrested in the parallel campaign of non-violent direct action prosecuted by farmers and greenies.

Over two years ago, as so many other sacred sites were being destroyed and desicrated, the Gomeroi put in a section 9 and 10 under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage and Protection Act to save the sacred site, Lawler's Well. That application has sat on the desk of the Environment Minister Greg Hunt without decision, and understandably this has frustrated Elders who have played by the rules for so long.

This summer, with clearing currently just a few hundred metres from Lawler's Well, Gomeroi / Gamilaraay traditional owners decided that they have had enough and took part in an act of civil disobedience to express their frustration.

On March 2, two Gamilaraay men, Paul Spearim and Allen Talbot and a Githabul man, Laurence Miles, locked themselves to concrete barrels at the entrance to the Maules Creek coal mine.

Paul Spearim said he undertook the action because, "for me personally this about the protection of our sacred lands, water, animals, song, dance, knowledge and culture of the Gamilaraay nation."

Dolly Talbot, a Gomeroi woman and spokesperson, said: "We are asking Greg Hunt to commence an independent report including oral evidence to make an informed decision. We are asking him to do his job right and protect our Lawler’s Well. It is so hard seeing the destruction of our country. The elders have been waiting too long for answers. It is completely unacceptable that Hunt dragged his feet on the protection of Lawler's Well. We reasonably expect the respect of an timely assessment and our rightful opportunity to have protection enacted."

Githabul man Laurence Miles spoke of the growing alliances amongst first nation and non-indigenous groups against destructive, extractive industries. "We come from the east to support the Gamilaraay in their fight to save mother earth," he said. "We are one in this fight."

Front Line Action on Coal has issued a call for people to contact Greg Hunt urging him to show respect to Elders and give them a decision regarding Lawler's Well. He can be contacted on (02) 6277 7920 – check out frontlineaction.org for more details.