Image for Conversations under an acacia tree and at a coal mine blockade

I was sitting under the shade of an acacia tree on a few rickety old chairs that a grade five student had dutifully carried from a classroom. The tree provided welcome relief from the stifling midday heat. It was early December, 2010, in rural Zimbabwe, hot and incredibly dry, as it often is before the summer rains arrive.

A group of us from a local community organisation and its Australian partners had spent the morning with local subsistence farmers, talking and learning about the challenges they face and what they see as solutions. It had been a busy morning and we were enjoying waiting in the shade at the primary school while another group met with local teachers.

I was chatting to Paul, an incredibly charismatic and intelligent man. He’d been a teacher before the Zimbabwean economy crashed and now worked as a community worker, connecting local farmers to collective learning and teaching experiences in order to improve their livelihoods and autonomy. Paul speaks five languages fluently and has lived all over Southern Africa. Add his wicked sense of humour and there’s never a dull moment.

He spoke with great passion about some of the bigger issues facing the community and finally came to his point, leaning across and looking me straight in the eye as he said, “What we are really worried about is this climate change. We here can do nothing about it. It is rich countries, like yours, that have caused this problem. We are paying the price and we have no resources to deal with these challenges.”

At Maules Creek, NSW

It’s four years since Paul and I sat under that acacia tree and this weekend I found myself similarly trying to find shade while having a chat with a farmer. This time I was chained to the farmer – Rick Laird – on an enormous super digger in Whitehaven’s Maules Creek mine.

Rick is a fifth generation farmer. The Leard State Forest was named after his forebears. Despite the obvious geographic differences between Paul and Rick there was some overlap in their stories.

Like Paul, Rick is faced with the daunting challenge of what our extractive fossil fuel industry means for his future, the future of his land, and of his children. Whitehaven Coal is mining just a few kilometres away from his property and his children’s’ school. The new coal mine has been controversial to say the least.

First, questions were raised over the approval of a mine in the Leard State Forest - one of the last remaining areas of nationally-listed and critically endangered Box-Gum Woodland.

Second, Rick is faced with a coal mine just four kilometres from his children’s school. Over 18,000 tonnes of coal dust will blow across the region over the life of the mine, raising the risk of asthma in his kids. Apparently, only a few days earlier, Professor of Community Health and IPCC contributor, Colin Butler, took action at Maules Creek to highlight the health risks associated with coal dust.

Unfortunately both Rick and Paul (and all of us) are faced with the reality that we have governments and big business who often leave the fate of family farmers or the world’s poor out of the debate. Here in Australia we are faced with retreat from action on climate change and a clear commitment from our government to expand the fossil fuel industry – with plans to double our coal production. How can we possibly try to prevent catastrophic climate change while opening new coal mines? What does this mean for people like Rick and Paul, who are already carrying the burden of our reliance on extractive fossil fuels? And, what can we possibly do about it?

These questions tend to leave many people feeling overwhelmed and like there are simply no solutions. But all over the world we can look to examples of problems that have been solved by groups of dedicated citizens. In India, the salt marches. In the United States, lunch counter sit-ins. In Argentina, workplace occupations. And in Australia, the Gurindji strike and the Moree freedom rides.

These peaceful direct actions raised serious questions about a huge variety of inequalities – pointing to the now obvious fact that those situations were deeply unfair and needed to be changed. In many cases activists did things which were illegal – but this civil disobedience was often what shifted public debate on issues and allowed the depth of inequality to be made visible.

All around the world people are resorting to non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to highlight the deep inequalities represented by the climate crisis. The nonviolent direct action I was part of on the weekend was very well planned, with the safety of Whitehaven’s security, staff and participants our primary concern. We were a group of eight Canberrans including public servants and a philosophy lecturer, and a local Maules Creek farmer who have grave concerns about the future of Australia and the legacy we will leave for generations to come.

We believe that we have far more in common with mine workers than the big companies that own most mines in Australia. The issue is with government policy and mining companies, not employees. Stopping new coal mines could result in huge investment in the renewables sector which would employ more people, as the mining industry seeks to automate more and more employed positions within its operations, limiting the cost of human resources.
Farmers like Paul and Rick have very little power to create change on their own. But when they are part of a broader movement of concerned citizens – change becomes possible. Since 2012, over 280 people have shown a commitment to join Frontline Action on Coal and stand alongside farmers like Rick and the local community, taking part in arrestable actions in and around the Leard State Forest.

Rick, Paul and climate change

My deep concern about climate change and the fate of people like Rick, Paul and the mine workers that I have been involved in many campaigns over the years – taking part in petitions, rallies, and discussion forums. But, until this weekend I have never participated in non-violent direct action. I have always hesitated – concerned about the impact this might have on my career.

My parents were always clear with my brothers and I when we were growing up that you have to have the courage of your convictions and that when you commit to something you must fully commit. That’s why, this weekend I travelled to the Leard Blockade to meet with farmers, activists and fellow Canberrans who are deeply concerned about the expansion of the Maules Creek Mine in the Leard State Forest. A group of us decided to take part in an action that would disable a super digger while we occupied it and raise awareness about the plight of the Maules Creek community, the Leard State Forest, the local Gamilaroi whose country and sacred sites are being destroyed, and all of us who are beginning to suffer the impacts of climate change.

After a very long day, after being arrested and processed, the constable looked at me sternly and said, “You don’t want to continue down this road. The ramifications are simply not worth it.”

I understood his warning but couldn’t help but think that his words were a perfect summary of the situation we collectively find ourselves in; scientists the world over are urging us to act on climate change – to leave coal in the ground and focus on renewables. Farmers like Rick Laird are fighting for the future of their farmlands. If I ask myself the question – what would I want people to do to help me if I was in Rick Laird’s position? Then I know I made the right decision. While people may not agree with me being arrested, I hope they will see this as an opportunity to further the conversation about climate change and engage more people in helping to shape what is all of our futures.

We all have a role to play.

David Pocock, a former captain of Australia’s rugby team, the Wallabies, plays for the Canberra team, the Brumbies. Following his arrest the Australian Rugby Union deemed his protest was a breach of the ARU’s Code of Conduct and issued Pocock with a formal, written warning.

• Pete Godfrey, in Comments: Now I can understand that role models in sport would be seen in a dark light if they go out binge drinking,fighting or abusing people. But to have principles and to put one’s body on the line to stand up for the democratic right to protest against a mine that should never have been approved. Well that is going too far. He should have been applauded by the Rubgy Union.

• Pilko, in Comments: Correct me if I’m wrong but this would’ve earned Mr Pocock a mandatory 10k fine in Tassie (20% of John Gay’s fine for insider trading) with subsequent offences warranting up to 4 years in the slammer.