How capitalism is killing Australia

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Source: WWF

A lot is wrong with water management north and west of the Great Dividing Range. In Central Queensland, a large section of the population is united in opposition to the construction of a proposed coal mine in the Galilee Basin. There are many reasons people are against coal mining, but the unifying issue is the operator’s plan to take water from a local river catchment. There is also the impact of the mine on the water table, springs and bores in its immediate vicinity. In the far west of New South Wales (NSW) there is a far more urgent issue, indeed a crisis, affecting the entire Darling River south of the Queensland border. A cotton and wheat growing property, Cubbie Station, has ended up preempting all of the water needed for towns and agriculture along the entire river. 

In both cases, governments have sided with big business against the interests of local communities, Indigenous custodians and the environment. This reeks of corruption, particularly in the case of Cubbie Station, and it comes on top of land mismanagement dating back to the occupation of the inland in the early 19th century, and the increasing effects of climate change. On 30 November last year, thousands of school children across the country took a stand for their future and rallied in cities and towns across the country. They were protesting against those responsible for climate change and against government inaction. As the school captain of one NSW primary school put it: “When kids make a mess, adults tell us to clean it up, and that’s fair. But when our leaders make a mess, they’re leaving it to us to clean up.” (Another protest is planned for March 15.)

Nothing’s as precious as a hole in the ground. Adani Group is a case study of such mess making. The Indian-based corporation is owned by a family trust, and controlled by Gautem Adani, a billionaire with a “colourful” reputation for thumbing his nose at tax law, environmental regulations and the rights of communities affected by the company’s activities. It has such a shocking record in India that it should never have been given a hearing when it applied for mining licences in Queensland. The fact that licences were granted says everything about this government’s fanatical devotion to the mining industry in general and the fossil fuel sector in particular — even to the detriment of other industries such as agribusiness and tourism, let alone the region’s communities and the environment.

Adani’s new mine has one purpose: to feed the company’s coal-fired power plants on the subcontinent. And to hell with anything that gets in the way of that. True to form, of course, as with many mining companies, Adani wants government to pay for most of the infrastructure. All seemed to be going well until local people got wind of what was going on in Brisbane and Canberra. Their communities, businesses and their environment were to be sacrificed on the altar of Big Coal. But that wasn’t all: so were the coastal communities in and around the Abbot Point terminal near Bowen, and the tourism industry of the Great Barrier Reef.

Adani operates best out of the spotlight. The better to do questionable deals with equally questionable politicians and officials in the shade. But with the lights turned on, things began to go badly. 

Pastoralists, environmentalists, small businesses, local Indigenous groups and tourist operators quickly formed a broad coalition around the demand: “Stop Adani!” At the same time, a scandal was revealed concerning Adani’s tax affairs and a chain of companies leading back to tax havens in the Cayman and British Virgin Islands. An investigation was started in India, and it emerged that the financial owner of the group is a family trust that Adani’s representatives somehow failed to mention to Australian regulators.

The combined effect of activism on the ground and the odour of corruption has not, yet, put a stop to the mine. But it has certainly made the project front page news! Activist lobbying of the finance sector has meant that the project can’t get funding or insurance. Adani claims that it will “self-fund” and “self-insure” the planned mine. There’s the nose-thumbing again. You need a license and proof of ongoing finances to self-insure in Australia. And there’s the matter of works carried out onsite before permission has been granted. If the local communities are joined by the world’s largest bankers and insurers in wanting to have nothing to do with this outfit and its methods, then, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “something is rotten in the state of Queensland!”

Let’s be clear — the struggle against this unnecessary giant hole in the Galilee Basin is far from won, and we need to increase pressure on governments to show Adani the door. The world does not need this mine. This continent and its communities do not need more environmental destruction. 

The Darling River was magnificent when healthy. Today, sheep graze in the river bed. Photo: Wikipedia

A stolen river. And so we come to a clear and present emergency: the Darling River. Its effects are felt mostly in NSW, but there will eventually be knock-on problems in South Australia (SA), too. But the debacle begins with Queensland, as ever, and is more rotten than the Adani debacle. The colonial attitude of successive Queensland politicians and officials has been to take as much from the land as they can, and to hell with everyone and everything that stands in their way. Queensland is built on genocide, land grabbing, slavery and deep-seated class divisions. Think Southern United States plantation owners, or the English overlords of similar outfits in Jamaica, Grenada and Trinidad. The basis of land management in Queensland is the utter disregard for those too disorganised or dispersed to fight back against the colonial landed gentry.

Which is why the Darling River is nearly dead from the Queensland border to Wentworth, where it meets the Murray River. At the time of writing, the river at Wilcannia, once a major inland port, stood at -0.6 metres below sea level. The river, now empty in many places, is either stagnant, or flowing backwards again. Where’s it flowing? To the pumps of Cubbie Station’s vast dams.

Fraud is a part of how big business is done in Queensland. Right up until the election of the current government, it was well known that cash donations were a lubricant in the development process. Indeed, former premier Joh Bjelke Petersen used to boast about “brown paper bags” of cash coming across his desk. The use of water resources was not exempt. So cotton is grown on desert rivers. One of the largest cotton farmers, John Norman, has been charged with illegally diverting water from the Macintyre River. His neighbours, deprived of water through his construction of unapproved levee banks, were the whistleblowers.

However, his alleged misdoings pale into insignificance in comparison to the manipulations of Cubbie Station’s owners. Having gamed the system of water licences, aided by the light touch of Queensland officials and the weak cross-border Murray Darling Basin Authority (MDBA), they merged 12 properties to acquire 51 water licences, “entitling” them to basically the entire water needs of communities along the river in NSW. If enough money is involved, theft is legal!

For an upstream river user to deprive downstream communities of water goes against European law dating back to the Roman Empire. The MDBA, charged with managing flows for irrigation and towns, and environmental health, has simply walked away from this. And so, the Darling and many communities, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, rural and urban, face the real possibility of abandonment. There is not enough bore water, which requires treatment anyway, to sustain communities, the environment or the economy.

Again, a vibrant and angry community resistance movement has come together. From Indigenous communities, to pastoralists, to smaller farmers and communities, people are rising up and demanding a halt to the plunder of their water. And their environment.

Whose river? OUR river! This is a national emergency! Instead of great 19th century paddle steamers plying the Darling it is now possible to drive along the river bed. In desperation, the Menindee Lakes were opened last year, not to get the river flowing, but in a vain attempt to appease community anger. This knee-jerk bureaucratic manoeuvre lowered the lakes to the point where algae blooms exploded, killing most of the fish and forcing the birds and mammals to migrate away. And of course, it backfired. The blooms spread downstream — and lately upstream — from the lakes. Upstream? Yes, sadly, the river is flowing backwards, filling its natural hollows with lethal toxins. The only saving grace at this point seems to be that there is not enough flow for those toxins to reach the Murray River, therefore sparing the communities of South Australia. Still, South Australian authorities are considering activating their seawater desalination plant to cope with decreased flows from upstream. Adelaide, the state capital, depends on the Murray-Darling system for its water.

Seize the day — and the cotton farms! Some excellent research — and field trials — have been done into how to manage land on this low-rainfall continent. Indigenous nations, with admittedly a much lower population density, managed through drought for 2,500 generations. It’s now pretty clear that drought, as experienced today, is caused by colonial mismanagement. Specifically by the degradation of soils, so that water is not retained on country. Repairing this damage is, of course, a long-term project, requiring revolutionary changes to the economy.

But there are steps that government must be forced to take right now. Malcolm Turnbull, erstwhile Prime Minister, suggested that Cubbie Station could be “resumed” by the federal government. Coming from him, of course, this was just hot air. Nonetheless, this is exactly what should happen. 

Cubbie must be confiscated and its pumps reversed. When river flow is again unimpeded, Cubbie’s hundreds of kilometres of dam walls must be bulldozed. In fact all of the illegal dam levees in all cotton plantations must face the same fate so the fragile flood plains of Western Queensland and NSW can be restored. Cotton is not a desert crop! It’s an industry that employs few, but disadvantages many. The cotton industry in western Queensland must be shut down and forced to relocate to where there is water — provided, of course, that local communities agree.

After the “Millennial Drought,” which never really ended, capitalism has just ground on — and ground down — upon the continent’s ecosystems. Right now, it is the Darling River which is being sacrificed. 

The rapacious environment-destroying industries of Queensland — and its government enablers — need to face the anger of the rest of us. These precious lands are not just a coal mine, not just a cotton plantation. They are places where people live. They don’t belong to shareholders — ultimately, they belong to the original custodians, who have, time and again, expressed willingness to share their country and knowledge, if only that custodianship is acknowledged and respected.

A recent protest sign in the western city of Broken Hill, which is part of the affected region, reads “You Can’t Eat Cotton.” Indeed. And you can’t drink money! 

Stop Adani! End corporate water theft! Expropriate the water thieves! Let the Darling flow free! 

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