The Lucky Country?

More and more Australians are concerned that the natural resources that surround them are being handed over to private entities


    I'm not going to pretend I wasn't a little nervous.

    Sixty metres may not sound like much - about the height of a 15-storey building - but I was travelling not by elevator, but by rope two men using a pulley system to haul me into a tree.

    When the rope temporarily jammed while I was dangling about 40m off the ground, I'm not ashamed to say that the loudest thing in the forest was my thumping heart.

    Miranda Gibson - the environmental activist I was being hauled up to meet - isn't scared of heights.

    On a small platform constructed around the trunk, she sleeps, cooks vegetables, and even conducts interviews via her laptop and Skype.

    She says she hasn't been down once since she first went up in December 2011. Miranda has lived in a tree for almost six months and won't be coming down, she says, until the forest she's in gets the protection it deserves.

    Environmental battles

    Miranda may seem pretty extreme. But more and more Australians are concerned that the natural resources that surround them – and collectively belong to them - are being handed over to private entities. More and more, that means mining companies.

    Mining is the driver of Australia's strong economy almost uniquely in the developed world, Australia has low unemployment, reasonable growth and the prospect of a budget surplus next year.

    The reason is the country's bountiful natural resources: high world prices for commodities mean the dollars are rolling in.

    But to dig up the minerals also means digging up what’s on top.

    As mining companies explore ever more pristine regions, that’s creating ever more environmental battles.

    In Tasmania, the latest battle is over the Tarkine – a forest of breathtaking beauty, mossy and lush. Walking through, I half-expected to stumble across fairies, tea-partying among the roots.

    Instead, if a number of development applications are accepted, it will be mines one is more likely to stumble across. Big ones.

    If trees are the forests' limbs, and the mossy undergrowth its skin, then its bones – deep below the surface – are made of iron-ore and tin. That's valuable stuff.

    On Tuesday night, Australia's prime minister, Julia Gillard, addressed the Minerals Council of Australia.

    Mining, she told the rich executives, is the Australian economy’s "strong right arm". She was grateful to have it: she had pride, she said, in "big yellow trucks the size of apartment buildings and open cuts as deep as Sydney Harbour".

    Deeper tensions

    But Gillard warned as well as praised. "You don’t own the minerals ... Governments only sell you rights to mine the resource," she said.

    That's because it’s not just fanatical tree-huggers who feel mining companies are getting too powerful. More and more Australians begrudge an industry which sometimes seems to ride roughshod over all others.

    Australia’s economy is strong, but it’s also ‘twin-track’ many sectors are struggling because of the high value of the Australian dollar - something mining has caused.

    Environmental battles – from Tasmania in the southeast, to a Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project in Australia’s extreme northwest – are often the flashpoints that hint at the deeper tensions.

    Australia is the Lucky Country – well-endowed and rich. But luck can sometimes turn out to be a curse as much as a blessing.

    Lottery winners sometimes hark back to when before they were spoiled. The same can be true of countries.



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