The coal boom has politicized land use in rural Australia, raising questions about whether mining and agriculture can co-exist.



In the early 2000s a mining boom took off in Australia. Proposals for new greenfield coal mines were spreading across the country at a pace that caught communities, and even experienced environmental campaigners in rural Australia by surprise. By 2013, some 91 new coal projects were proposed, including 54 ‘greenfield’ mines, and the rest extensions on existing projects.

After a decade of manoeuvring by mining companies, state and Federal governments, court cases and opposition from local communities and campaigns by major environmental organizations, the future of some major coal mine proposals in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland remains unresolved.

Case Study: Liverpool Plains

Our study focuses on the Liverpool Plains, an agricultural district in the North West of NSW, and one of the most fertile and productive farming regions in Australia. Two large-scale coal projects have been slated for the Liverpool Plains. The first is the Shenhua Watermark mine, proposed by Shenhua, a Chinese state-owned company which is the largest coal producing company in the world by output.

If it proceeds, the Shenhua Watermark coal mine would produce 270 million tonnes of coal over 30 years, primarily for energy and steel production in China. The first mine proposed by the Anglo-Australian multinational resource company BHP Billiton, was cancelled in August 2016.

The Liverpool Plains have seen major transformations since the beginning of European invasion and colonization, including violent conflicts between settlers and local indigenous peoples, expansion of rail infrastructure, urban growth in regional centres, and the industrialisation of agriculture later in the 20th century. The coal boom since the early 2000s is yet another round of transformation unsettling existing patterns of social life, economic activity and environmental change.

“This is about dining versus mining.”

Unlike the German and Indian case studies in our project, where local communities live in a landscape already drastically affected by coal mining, and are fighting its expansion, the proposed Shenhua Watermark mine is a greenfield site; no earth has been moved as yet for mining purposes.

Sorghum in the foreground of wideshot of farmland on the Liverpool Plains
A greenfield site; no earth has been moved as yet for mining purposes.

The process of government review of the Shenhua mine proposal has been drawn out over 9 years, in many respects due to ongoing public protest. However, the case of the Liverpool Plains shows that even without turning over dirt, the prospect of coal can have dramatic impacts on local people and their lives.

In particular, the coal boom has politicized land use in rural Australia, raising questions about whether mining and agriculture can co-exist.

“This is about dining versus mining. It’s about being able to produce food forever. It’s going all over the place. It’s feeding the world. But that mine over there is going to operate for 30 years. When it goes, after it’s basically ripped out what they want and gone, what will it produce?”

John Hamparsum, local farmer

Affected landholders like Hamparsum have mobilised, drawing on their considerable resources and political links to try and stop the projects. Indigenous people have joined the contest, asserting their cultural heritage and objection to the mines as another wave of neo-colonial destruction. Responses from residents of nearby towns have been more mixed. Some members of local council, businesses and residents coal mining as a source of work and growth for the region.

John Hampersum sit near damn on property
John Hamparsum, local farmer.

We have witnessed this local struggle over coal in many places – in town halls, clubs, farms, a court room, on the streets, and in homes. There have been multiple, and often competing, claims made by different actors about water security, property rights, indigenous heritage, local economic development, foreign investment and trade, food security, species-loss and climate change.

All quotes attributed to individuals are from interviews conducted for the radio documentary series, Beyond the Coal Rush, one of the outcomes from this project.

Local Alliances

Of particular interest for our study are the alliances local farmers and other community members have formed with environmental organizations with an explicit commitment to climate action.

In September 2015, at the “Harvest Festival” on a property belonging to farmer Andrew Pursehouse, farmers joined publicly with environmental groups such as the Wilderness Society, and Front Line Action on Coal to form the Liverpool Plains Alliance. Pursehouse explicitly committed farmers to non-violent direct action if the mine goes ahead:

“It’s something that we haven’t done too much before as farmers we’re pretty uncomfortable with that arrangement but we’ve got to defend our right here, we’ve got to defend the future of farming in country like this, and I’ve said many times before: we’ll do whatever it takes.”

Andrew Pursehouse, farmer.

Stands in front of No Mines Billboard
Andrew Pursehouse, farmer.

As the debates have played out, a continuous stream of politicians, corporate representatives, experts, and activists have moved in and out of new zones of contestation created by the prospect of the new mines.

Shenhua received $262 million in compensation from the government.

As we write up our research findings, the question of whether, where, how far, and on what terms, the mine might proceed is still unanswered. Opposition to the mine has led to increased federal and state government scrutiny of its potential impacts on underground water, agricultural productivity and indigenous heritage in particular.

Most recently, the NSW Government negotiated with Shenhua to reduce the size of the potential mine exploration area (but not the mine). Shenhua received $262 million in compensation from the government.

The company is very close to full approval, which now hinges on a Federal Department of Environment review of the mine water management plans and a review of the indigenous heritage issues. The company has yet to apply to the NSW State government for a mining licence. With the role of coal in Australia’s domestic energy mix, and the contribution of Australia’s coal exports to global warming under increasing scrutiny, the lengthy delay of Shenhua’s Watermark coal mine is evidence of the difficulties securing societal consent for new coal at this point in history.

Farmers hold letters to spell wrong mine wrong place
Locals defend the future of farming.