Lisa Lane-Collins is an Adelaide-based musician and audio engineer with a passion for ecologiical balance. She's kindly recorded her impressions of being involved in the recent protests at Olympic Dam, near Roxby Downs SA, home to nearly one third of the world's known uranium reserves.
Australia is a pretty lucky country when it comes to mineral resources, we have generous deposits of coal, copper, 'mineral sands' and uranium among others. And of course, where-ever a resource like is found, there's always someone around ready to dig up at any expense. This can be to the a ivery thirsty activity (in a very dry country), power intensive (when we should be scaling back our dependence on electricity) and detriment of the environment....
Some years ago I listened to two Aboriginal elders in Newcastle explaining how Newcastle coal comes from their Dreamtime and has a real significance, not just to their nation, but to many other surrounding nations (coal brought tribes together in a peaceful manner). The way that 'white Australia' had just come in rough shod digging it up and selling it off willy nilly (needless to say keeping the profits too) had really stressed them out It made me realise that in this country at least, you aren't just damaging the environment when you mine, you are also committing a social injustice....
So when I heard that Uncle Kevin Buzzacott had put out a heart felt request to all who cared about the threat posed by mining uranium to join him in a protest by the gates of the Olympic Dam mine, I knew I had to go, not just because I agree that mining uranium is a dumb move, and not just because this protest included some brilliant symbolism ('gather at the 'gates of hell' to wake Kalta the sleepy lizard, who lies in the ground with poison in his belly and is getting angry because BHP Billiton is digging into his body,) but because I'm grateful to this man for taking on this fight (to the courts of Australia no less).
It's no easy task to find the time to extract myself from my city life, Even with this protest falling mostly during the week (I work on weekends and a struggling sound engineer never refuses work) I still had to ask for a night off and delay departure by one day. The endless outcry that everyone gathering is a centrelink dole bludger needless to say, was to me thoroughly irritating. Traversing the 600 kilometres was a challenge too. Lucky for me, going up and coming back I managed to carpool with other people.
I had ideas in my head about what it might be like, a big stage facing out into a great expanse of desert, a kind of Woodstock breaking the peace of the night – not quite what it turned out to be. I arrived just after sunset on the first day of this rolling blockade/art and music festival - Bestival! That the last stretch of road towards the camp site had to be travelled with a police escort seemed like overkill to me but oh well.
The camp site was dark, lots of dust, campfires dotted around, pockets of campers stretching right down the Oodnadatta track. In the central area of the camp there were 3 big tents (two for food prep, one for shade). And there were some amazing decorations including a Teepee shaped sculpture made from branches and lit from within by an LED parcan, a giant inflatable barrel of nuclear waste, a big white elephant, a stage with musicians on it doing their thing and….. the strangest looking PA I've ever seen, made out of ply wood and looking like it came straight from Soviet Russia...I haven't got words to express my surprise and delight when I discovered that this loud, odd looking thing was COMPLETELY SOLAR POWERED!!!!! Being a clean green tech enthusiast, I was engaged. I was curious. I was inspired. I'm keen to make one of these back home, for myself. It may not run on solar, but a PA using a 6th of the power PAs normally use is nothing to be sneezed at. Spent that night sharing mixing duties with the owner and designer of the PA, Combat Wombat's very own Monkey Mark.
The protester population was not what I had expected either (based on previous experiences of Climate Camp and various Students of Sustainability conferences). There were many less students, many more of the subculture of people who seem to identify as 'fezzas' (ferals) or 'crusties'. These are the kinds of people who are expert at camping and roughing it and travelling the country, who stand up for what they believe in. They are the type of direct action protester who care passionately about the environment and are prepared to sacrifice their time and comfort and physically lock on to things they think worth saving, (giant, ancient Tasmanian trees for example). There were a few free spirited hippy types around the place too, and a few older people.
Not every one there dressed like a carnie! not everyone present was living off of centrelink! I heard a few people had quit their jobs to be there because they care enough about this issue more than money. Some like myself came late or left early because of work commitments, others took annual leave or leave without pay to be there. It is a remote location and a challenge to get there so that probably explains the low numbers of eco-friendly students from interstate.
I'll say retrospectively, we may have all been labelled as the “great unwashed” but when you’re in the desert with just the water you can carry, you Don't waste that water on washing! Also, just like all my previous experiences within these temporary gatherings of alternative communities, people were generally pretty darn nice to each other too and mechanisms were in place to resolve conflict should any arise – contrary to my housemate's belief that we would require the police presence to save us from harm when we all “turned on each other” - goes to show how little he knows. (And for all the lonely people out there, if we had more camp fires to gravitate to we might be able to break the ice without intoxication).
On to the business side of things, being a 'rolling blockade' meant undertaking actions to 'block' the road. This was the goal. In the space of four days the following actions were undertaken; There was a big and well planned action, this one was the most formal and seemed like an overwhelming success to me. I have one slight issue. If the majority of participants dress like carnival folk this detracts from people's ability to take us seriously. And I do realize protesters dress thusly because they want to keep things fun, but…
To their credit, fun ideas for attention-getting included such things as a 'zombie' protest and 'frocks on the front line' – (a competition which ended in a fashion parade/dance off). On a more sombre note, we kicked off this protest with 3 minutes of silence for the victims of Fukishima during which several individuals near me broke down in tears. I think one of them lost his grandchildren to cancer recently. Another was an indigenous man (that I will guess was) upset about the environmental destruction he feels obliged and powerless to stop.
I've never seen so much media at a protest, I guess the media and the cops were waiting for us to cause trouble. They were mostly disappointed. This protest was generally peaceful (except for those idiot gate breakers). There were almost as many police as protesters and a kind of PA informing us as we entered the protest zone that we were entering a 'protected area' and would have to follow police directive, this was neither here nor there for me until I wanted to leave. Two hours in the desert afternoon sun and I had a full blown headache and was feeling nauseous and wondering if I had heat stroke. The %#$$# police WOULD NOT LET ME LEAVE!! I started to panic and to verge on the hysterical. I was stuck in the blazing afternoon sun in the middle of the desert. They refused my freedom of movement but offered an ambulance call which I did not need. I needed to Not Be Outside Anymore (read – back at camp hiding in my swag after a good dose of painkiller and food) as I felt really sick. Luckily a large enough group of satisfied protesters were ready to leave with police escort and I got out.
Spirits were high the next day and the following two more protests were undertaken. Both were imaginative, both provoked news coverage and both provoked police presence. The basic objective was to block the road and this was achieved. Breakfast not bombs occurred on the road for a while till the cops broke it up.
Later in the day, people decided to go play cricket on the dusty oval that lay within the 'protected area' that was our people pen. For some reason this got played on the road instead … a bit dumb but….. blocking the road….ok. This protest saw the most police intervention and a bizarre cop tactic. They formed a human moving wall and began to herd all before them in a given direction. Protesters were herded towards the camp incrementally with the aid of cops on bikes and horses. Cricket balls and bats were confiscated, Crusties became angry and resentful of these incursions on their civil liberties, took the bait, and argued with the police, and some got up in the horses’ faces. One of my ASEN companions satirised them thusly- “I'm an Anarchist and I want to punch a Horse in the Face” Of course this isn't exactly true, but it could certainly be misconstrued that way. This protest action moved to the crest of the hill between camp and oval and stalemated for over an hour.
There had been 18 arrests. The road had been repeatedly blocked and that goal had been achieved. People's hunger for action was beginning to dissipate. Plenty packed up and left the next day and no more formal actions were undertaken. However there was one informal action that occurred on Thursday morning as we were breaking camp and although the most lawless and radical, this is the protest I feel most warm and fuzzy about. And it went like this.
All Festival there had been a car on site made up to look like a lizard, which we weren't allowed to take on protests with us “in case it had equipment for locking on inside” On this particular day, a small handful of hardcore ferals crowded into and on top of the car and managed to get it out on the road. As it rolled into sight of the ASEN camp, a group of us packing to leave raced through the scrub to the road to cheer them as they passed. They did not roll on though, instead they used the car to block the road, which was our ongoing primary objective. Two individuals (whose protest methodology involves locking on) began to lock onto the lizard car, then they realised there was a truck stuck in the traffic jam which had ensued and next thing we knew, all the ferals were racing for the truck, clambering up its front and onto its back (Mad Max styles). It was a great moment as the two determined to lock onto the truck axles instead. The truck driver took the whole thing very well – not endorsing our actions per se but endorsing our right to take action.”on ya mate.”
The lizard car was then manoeuvred around to block the other side of the road. Over the next few hours police and media arrived on the scene and steps to remove the two men locked on were taken by the police They put up screens up to block our view. What did they want to hide? Or had they just been watching too much TV? Eventually, the police again used their 'moving wall' tactic to push people back through a sizeable chunk of scrub to where the ASEN camp had been previously standing. The last thing I saw of this protest involved a policeman trying to catch a female running away whilst holding a bongo and wearing no top, obviously a dangerous eco-terrorist. Immediately protesters started calling out to the tune of police brutality (which is a little bit crying wolf and had been the case all week, but in the context of police behaviour at previous protests, I understand why). At this point the cops retreated and we left the site
There was one more aspect to this bestival I would like to mention – information. We were all gathered to protest, create energy (revitalise and re-motivate each other) and to share information. This occurred on an informal, small-scale level through random conversations (like the conversation I had with a guy who owned a Geiger counter and measures radiation for fun). There were also formal presentations my personal favourite of which was a presentation on mining-induced earthquakes given by a colourful chap going by the name of Earthquake Edward.
Edward gave us a little bit of his personal history as well,which was pretty cool. Turns out he has Indigenous ancestry but if I heard correct, he didn't actually know for a long time, he grew up in America (one of his ancestors ended up in America during the war and never returned), he studied geology I guess, he worked as a seismologist for a long time until he realised the company he worked for was doing secret work for the CIA sussing out the state of the ground in Afghanistan
(pre 9/11). Edward decided that was cause to quit, came to Australia, rode around the country, possibly aimlessly on his push bike, then one day rode past a big gathering of people in the desert, sitting, listening intently to none other than Uncle Kev, talking about some menial camp keeping issue.
Long story short, like Uncle Kev, Edward is an Arabunna man too, just His great granddad left, abandoning his responsibility to 'country' (I'm pretty sure he was killed in the war so this abandonment was probably quite involuntary). Reconnecting with his roots, Edward feels like he has come back to take care of his family's 'unfinished business'. Greater forces at play, or nothing but a series of coincidences, the whole thing is indeed serendipitous, now 'country' has the skills of a seismologist to put forward very convincing arguments for ceasing mining activity...
Some concepts shared by Edward that sunk in and stuck; BHP fully disclosed information about expanding their mine right over a fault line in their Environmental Impact Statement, they considered many of the implications, but not one mention has been made of the possibility that mining could cause an earthquake. Edward mapped out mines and earthquakes and hypothesised any place they happen within 30 km of each other might be mining induced, it turns out this happens more than anywhere else around Sydney, the logical progression is to suspect the New Castle earthquake (which wiped out half the CBD) was mining induced.
So an earthquake happens at Olympic Dam, big deal, middle of no where, no on will be affected right?! Wrong! Part of the expansion the mine would be the creation of 9 tailings dams, dams containing radiative dirt/dust/rock that is a by product of getting at the good stuff. A broken dam means radioactive dust blowing around the desert (and eventually being dumped on Sydney if last year's dust storm is anything to go by) and radiation leaking into the ground water (read – great artesian basin which carries water from the east of Aus all the way underneath the desert). So, an earthquake on a mine site is a problematic thing and not really just a localised problem.
I came away from this talk happy to have some concrete arguments against the expansion of the mine because up until this point, I had just been running on a hunch and I tended to get soundly beaten in debates. (I have since pulled out this radioactive dust argument with the bass player from the band I'm in to which he replies “that will never happen, they won't let it” sigh! … He also reckons Australia should create a nuclear weapons arsonal. Again, sigh).
4 days in Doctor Helen Caldicott came and spoke to us about the dangers of uranium (she gave a presentation to the township of Roxby Downs too which struck me as the right thing to do). The thing that stuck was the idea that in one small country who's name eludes me, the birth defects from exposure to radiation are so severe the women have been advised to stop having kids. O.O This reminded me of hearing an Aboriginal woman from Maralinga talking about the intergenerational cancers her family line was experiencing. This stuff messes with our genetic code, and not in a good, beneficial mutations way, we're talking about early deaths from cancer and kids born with no head.
One night was dedicated to movies (of the non-fiction variety). It was kicked off by a presentation/mini documentary about giant cuttlefish who are going to be wiped out when BHPs desal plant becomes operation due to hyper-salinity. Then we watched a bunch old footage of previous protests, in particular, one in '99 at the Beverley mine which gave me great insight into why crusties are like they are. The police behaviour at this protest - small in size, in the middle of no where, where no one can hear you scream, and the media is not watching - definitely verged on terrifying, people being beaten with batons, fleeing protesters being sprayed with tear gas like you might use fly spray on a fly. Prisoners welded into a shipping container – why would any police officer think this is the right way to uphold law and order?! I felt a better sense of why a group of
passionate people would call themselves the Desert Liberation Front after that. There is no justice in the desert, just mining companies and police.
Which segues nicely into this one other thought I have (especially after returning and reading some of the letters to the editor on the protest). A regular criticism levelled against protesters is that we have No respect for the law. Here we straddle a truly grey area. We are not necessarily respecting White Australia's laws but it isn't like we are lawless though. We upheld the laws that are relevant such as “be kind to each other” and in addition, the overwhelming sentiment at this gathering was that we were guests of Uncle Kev. Ergo we followed his 'house rules'. He had specifically said “Non violent protest” so people kept their activities mellow. White Australia's laws are protecting the mine, the mine is in the business of extracting poison. We feel threatened by that, and that we have no alternative course of action but to protest it....
Don't get me wrong, smart people who are good with red tape and care passionately about the environment might be working right now to change things from the inside. However, change from the inside happens very slowly and by the time it happens the damage will probably already be done. What relevance does a law like 'don't stand on the road' have in the face of an issue like mining uranium on stolen land?! We got bucket loads of media coverage, and if this gets people talking if it raises awareness then that is a good thing.