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The Adani mine and an emerging mass movement

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When Quentin Beresford was finishing Adani and the War Over Coal early last year it seemed like Adani’s Carmichael mine ambitions were near-defeated. A quote from Bob Brown on the cover of the book reads: “Beresford charts a citizens’ revolt that brought the Adani mine monster to its knees”.  

“Gautam Adani should be a worried man,” Beresford wrote after detailing the struggle waged by environmentalists and Indigenous activists. They piled obstacles onto Adani’s route into the Australian “coal wars” while the Australian political class scurried to move those obstacles off. Public opinion reached 65 per cent opposition to the mine, legal challenges exposed jobs as a “fig leaf” justification and, crucially, the big banks refused funding.  

Public opinion is often depicted by politicians as being far more conservative than it really is, and therefore, they say, forcing their hands to make right-wing decisions. But the Adani mine has exposed just how hollow the idea of a conservative public really is. Political reporter Jim Middleton characterised opposition to Adani as “a general metaphor for: do you want to save the environment? Are you in support of real measures to prevent climate change?” – and the majority of Australians answered yes, even before diving into the mess that is Adani’s track record. For most Australians, who aren’t earning a profit from coal or assisting via parliament, it’s pretty obvious that the industry should no longer be supported.  

The industry is the largest contributor to carbon emissions and Australia consistently rates as the first or second biggest exporter in the world. Most of us can recognise that this is a problem and that both the Labor and Liberal parties’ enthusiasm for the Adani mine reflects bipartisan intention to drive industry expansion. This recognition put mass sentiment, but not necessarily active participation, in the anti-Adani campaigns which Beresford wrote were possibly the biggest environmental campaign in Australia’s history. 

But in December Adani announced they were going ahead anyway. The resuscitated mine has, for now, been scaled back from a $16 billion project to a $2 billion one. But there has been no equivalent reduction in the threat it poses. It will blacken the rivers, destroy the Great Artesian Basin and finish the Great Barrier Reef with a death-kiss while pumping carbon pollution into the atmosphere. 

While Adani was displaying their determination to murder the planet for profit, thousands of school students across the country – and world – were preparing to walk out of class to protest inaction on climate change. There were school strikes on almost every continent 

The School Strike 4 Climate spread across the world from Sweden, where it was started by 15-year-old Greta Thunberg. Over 5000 students struck in Melbourne and thousands more in other major Australian cities and regional towns. 

Politicians condescendingly chastised the students’ actions. Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the students to go back to class, asserting that activism and schools don’t mix, while Resources Minister Matt Canavan suggested strikers would end up in dole queues. 

The students’ militant reaction was summed up by 17-year-old Jagveer Singh’s statement that ‘ScoMo’ had only strengthened his determination to strike. And not just once – the school students have called a second strike for March 15. 

Their determination only continues to spread. At the end of last year, the National Union of Students (NUS) passed a motion endorsing the School Strike 4 Climate at their national conference and have called on university students across the country to mobilise for the protests in March, and things are already in motion. 

On January 11 university students from across Melbourne held a speak-out against Adani on the steps of Flinders Street Station where they announced their solidarity with the school students. While attracting attention due to the general level of public opposition to Adani, speakers focused in on the details of the proposed mine. 

The following are just a few examples of the likely results of any mine in the area: continued destruction of the world’s largest living organism, the Great Barrier Reef; contamination of the Great Artesian Basin, the largest in the world that covers about 22 per cent of Australia; a mass amount of wasted water resources (an estimated 270 billion litres at the mine’s previous proposed size); existential risk to 160 ancient wetlands; and undoubtedly massive contributions to carbon emissions, all at a time when such pollution needs to stop completely. On top of that is what has been referred to as the “opening up” of the Galilee Basin – a kind of domino effect of mining companies moving in and causing more of the above. 

But bringing Adani into the equation shows that the reef and the basin have already been damaged. The company set up their Abbot Point coal export terminal in preparation for the Carmichael mine. In 2017 Cyclone Debbie caused their storage pools to overflow and cover nearby wetlands in pollution. 

Since starting in Australia Adani has breached their pollution license by 800 per cent, and their work has hardly begun. There is currently an investigation into allegations Adani illegally began work at the Carmichael mine site, not bothering to wait for permission to clear masses of vegetation and drill six bores into Great Artesian Basin aquifers.  

Certain trends emerge when you begin reading about Adani. In 2011, the Gujarat High Court in India found that Adani had commenced work without environmental clearance and destroyed one thousand hectares of mangroves. 

Adani has a record of disregarding Indigenous people and traditional owners of the land, a history that extends beyond the land of the Wangan and Jagalingou people at the Carmichael site. In his book Beresford told how, after being granted land through dodgy deals in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2005, Adani subsequently displaced 56 fishing villages and 126 settlements. Despite protests from locals, Adani maintained it was simply “waste land”.  

It’s hard to find a company with a worse track record, or at least one that’s so readily available. The environmental list in itself is too long for this article, but to add to this is Adani’s horrendous treatment of workers – industrial manslaughter, bonded labour (modern day slavery) and regular cholera outbreaks are just some examples detailed by Beresford and reported in the media. 

According to Beresford’s profile of Gautam Adani, climate change denial and disdain for environmentalists provided bonding ground between Adani and now Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It’s also a quality he holds in common with our current Federal Government. Our (likely) forthcoming Federal Government may speak more carefully on the issue but have been exposed in lockstep with the coal industry.  

If Beresford didn’t predict Adani’s announcement when he wrote his book, he also didn’t see the school students coming. Most of the country wouldn’t have – adolescents are a demographic constantly underestimated and patronised. The climate strikers were treated with the same surprised reaction as the US high schoolers who organised mass protests against gun violence at the start of last year. But there’s actually an overlooked history of adolescent activism. Examples of school students striking and protesting against repression of young people are easy to find, but so are their protests on wider social issues. In 1978 in the UK teenagers launched their own branch of the successful Anti-Nazi League – School Kids Against the Nazis. They leafleted and held speak-outs, targeting division and racism amongst young people. And when high schoolers joined the Yellow Vest demonstrations in France, also at the end of last year, it was commented that French authorities fear their participation in civil disobedience because of how rapid their protests spread. There’s cause to say Australian authorities should fear them too, they may lead the rest of us into the streets.  

Meg Hill

The author Meg Hill

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