Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, a much younger Seeker set off across the desert in a beat-up old van with her toddler child and two girlfriends in tow. Two days into the drive, on a highway miles away from the nearest dusty western Queensland town, the van’s starter motor packed up. We hitched a ride to a one-garage town and coughed up for the world’s most expensive second-hand motor to be installed and soon enough we all piled back into the lemon-of-a-van and hit the road again. Five days later we arrived at our destination: Kakadu, Northern Territory. Not your typical tourists; we were ready for action of a different kind.
Cast your mind back to 1996, if you will… John Howard has been elected Prime Minister and the no new uranium mines policy of the previous Labor government is out the window. Uranium export is firmly back on the agenda and one of Australia’s largest deposits of uranium, located in spectacular Kakadu, NT, is set to be unearthed – against the wishes of the traditional Aboriginal landowners, the Mirrar people.
It is against this backdrop that one of Australia’s iconic environmental and land rights protests took place in 1998 – with 5000 people estimated to have passed through the blockade camp and hundreds arrested for resisting the construction of the mine.
The Jabiluka Blockade, like the Franklin River Dam protest and Terania Creek forest campaigns that preceded it, was a defining moment in the social movement history of our country.
I spent over six months there, volunteering as part of the camp’s media collective sending stories and images of the protest out to the world. It was rough living in the tropics – even in the dry season – mossies, extreme heat, primitive camping facilities and complex politics both within and outside of the camp as environmental and indigenous land rights politics melded and, at times, collided.
It was, ultimately, a successful campaign, but the eight-month blockade was just the begnning. So many people kept on (and keep on) working behind the scenes and Jabiluka’s uranium remains in the ground (for now). Initial work was made on the site, then halted by falling world uranium prices. The site took years to be remediated and the prospect of the mine going ahead always looms over the Mirrar people. Without the political will, mining companies still hold the cards…
I am proud to have been at Jabiluka and to have played my small part. I was drawn to be involved because it seemed obscene to me that the rights of the landowners were being overridden so a toxic uranium mine could be built in such a fragile, majestic environment.
Fast forward to 2014 and another iconic protest is now being been played out in my neck of the woods – Northern NSW – as the community opposition to unconventional gas mining builds.
Again, the issue is about mining companies walking roughshod over the wishes of landowners and the community who will have to live with the effects long after the money is made and the company pulls stumps and leaves.
The Bentley Blockade (15minutes out of Lismore) has this week made history with the NSW Minister for Resources and Energy, Anthony Roberts announcing that the NSW Office of Coal Seam Gas had suspended Metgasco’s Rosella exploration licence for a gas well at Bentley. A huge win for the community who have maintained a vigil at the mine gates for months now.
Metgasco, the minister said, had failed to undertake genuine and effective community consultation which is a requirement of their exploration license. The announcement came on the eve of an expected 800 police who were to arrive as the first drill rig was due to be taken onto the land. The minister has also referred the approval process for the mine well to ICAC, the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
For now, the Bentley gas well is on hold…
Seeing hundreds of peaceful, concerned and passionate community members – and friends – celebrating this win has reignited a flame in me. It’s been a long time since that madcap journey across the desert and the months spent roughing it at camp, but the desire to “make a difference” is alive and well.
To anyone who is wondering if marching, joining rallies and protests, blockading or speaking out; bearing witness and telling the stories can actually make a difference to the world we leave our children, the answer is: Yes! You are a doing something important. Bentley is evidence of that. Jabiluka is evidence of that. The protected wilderness of Tasmania and Northern NSW forests is evidence.
You are standing up for what you believe to be right and you have history on your side. You are part of a continuum of proud social protest in this country. You are, quietly and powerfully, person by person, changing the world for the better.
Bentley is a watershed in the movement towards a renewables future. The water we drink; air we breathe and land that produces the food and environment we need to survive are simply not worth taking risks with for short-term financial gain.
The “protectors” at Bentleyare not extremist rabble-raisers, as the mining company would have you believe, but ordinary people who come from vastly different political spectrums and backgrounds but are connected by a common goal to look after the land. They stood their ground in a non-violent and respectful way and their win this week is a win for us all.
Documenting the Protest Movement
This is the first part of a series on social movements I will share on the blog. Agree or disagree with the individual issues, there’s no doubt we have a strong and colourful history of people power in this country.
These are also the first Jabiluka images I have published since the blockade itself. They were taken on my 50mm Olympus film camera and to get them printed I would make the two-hour drive from the camp to Darwin sometimes once a week, sometimes once a fortnight, depending on what action had taken place in the blockade that week. Those needed for media would often be picked up by an AAP stringer, others would be given to the Environment NT office, but mostly the media collective’s job involved writing media releases; organising media crews to visit the action and doing radio interviews. So, so many radio interviews…
Those were the days before digital cameras and social media. I look at how media has been so easily dispersed from the Bentley blockade and it is incredible how much has changed in such a short operiod of time (16 years). What I would have given for an iPhone and a Twitter hashtag up at Jabiluka!
I have scores of prints and negatives taken over a six month period at the blockade. These are the first lot I have digitised, but I want to get them all archived. It will be a bit of a process to scan and sort but I feel strongly that they are more than some keepsake of mine, rather I think they are part of Australia’s history and should be shared. If you see yourself or a friend among these first batch of images and want to share your own story, or perhaps your own photos, please get in touch – Megan