Australian farmers fight new gold mine

New mine on prime agricultural land riles farmers and raises questions about the country’s economic future.

Farmer Brenton Davey's land lies within the planned Hillside mine's 30sq km area of operation [Royce Kurmelovs]
Farmer Brenton Davey's land lies within the planned Hillside mine's 30sq km area of operation [Royce Kurmelovs]

Ardrossan, Australia – It’s almost harvest time on the Yorke Peninsula, a boot-shaped strip of land on Australia’s central-southern coast. A week from now, farmers will head out into the fields under an iconic blue sky to bring in this year’s crop.

Some families have lived and worked the land here for six generations, helping to make the peninsula into a food bowl, one of only two in the state of South Australia.

Which is why four-years ago the farming community organised to fight start-up mining company Rex Minerals and stop the building of a 2.4km, open-cut copper and gold mine in the middle of prime agricultural land.

“The Yorke Peninsula feeds the state,” local farmer and farming consultant Bill Long told Al Jazeera.

“It feeds the world. We export all over the world. That mine will last for 15 years. We can produce these crops for 500 years. And we’re going to sacrifice that for a hole in the ground?”

The stress has really … I can't put a figure to it. I can't put anything to it. All I can say is that it's the first word we speak in the morning and the last thing we say before going to bed.

- Brenton Davey, sixth-generation farmer

Tricky business

At the end of July, Rex Minerals secured government approval to go ahead with construction on its $850m flagship Hillside mine.

For the farmers who had been fighting the project since 2010, the battle appeared to be over. But in a twist, Rex Minerals’ managing director, Mark Parry, resigned eight days later when the company announced it had failed to secure proper investment and would be forced to downsise the project.

This gave hope to the region’s farmers who feel betrayed by a state government they accuse of “rubber stamping” the planned mine. But by far the biggest complaint is against the company itself, which farmers said has been predatory in its approach.

“They were playing on the farmers’ good nature,” said Stephen Lodge, chairman of the Yorke Peninsula Land Owners Group.

Under South Australia law, a mining company is prevented from using farmland unless the owner signs a waiver giving the company permission. This prevents Rex Minerals from compulsorily acquiring the land, but this was never explained to the farmers who said they initially felt pressured into allowing the company access.

While Rex Minerals has since acquired a handful of properties, there are still five families whose land the company needs before it can start construction.

Brenton Davey, a sixth-generation farmer, is one of them, but he and his wife Sue have repeatedly refused to sell. Initially, Davey said he refused the company access to his land and when they came back to find out why, he wouldn’t budge.

Rex Minerals then threatened legal action, but Davey invited the company to take the matter to court. That was seven-years ago, and since then he hasn’t heard back.

“The problem for them is that this whole area is freehold land,” said Davey. “I called their bluff.”

While he and his wife are determined to stay put, Davey said the fight is taking a personal toll.

“The stress has really … I can’t put a figure to it. I can’t put anything to it. All I can say is that it’s the first word we speak in the morning and the last thing we say before going to bed.”

Questions unanswered

Farmers say the mine will “sterilise” the land, interfere with tourism, and threaten the local environment.

Flinders University oceanographer Jochen Kaempf has been monitoring the project for its impact on marine life, and said since the mine will be only 500 metres from the water, the environmental threat is significant.

According to Kaempf, the mine may bring more shipping activity to the area, while dust blown off the pit may carry toxic particles from the mining process.

If this dust lands in the water, it will travel north with the current, polluting pristine mangroves, seagrass beds, and prawn spawning grounds.

“You can’t predict that it will happen. We don’t know, but the risk is massive for an industrial development of this kind,” said Kaempf.

When contacted, a spokesperson for Rex Minerals would not comment except to say the company was in the process of redesigning the project to run on a smaller scale, and to point out there are already other mining operations on the peninsula.

This refers to the 40-metre-high, 300 hectare open-cut Dolomite mine outside Ardrossan that has operated since the 1940s.

However, farmers respond by saying the entire Hillside project will operate across 3,000 hectares and will dwarf any existing mining operation on the peninsula to date.

More than that, the region’s farmers fear the new mine will pave the way for future mining projects.

Stephen Lodge of the Yorke Peninsula Land Owners Group has been fighting the mine project [Royce Kurmelovs/Al Jazeera]

“There’s Hillside but they’re planning for more. They’re looking at 50 exploration sites across the Yorke Peninsula,” said Stewart Lodge, local farmer and a cousin of Stephen Lodge.

“It will change the landscape.”

But the project is not without supporters. Tauto Sansbury, chairman of the local Narunnga Nations Aboriginal Corporation, sees the mine as bringing stable employment to the area.

Sansbury said for the indigenous Narunnga people, the mine offers training and guaranteed work under a deal struck with Rex Minerals.

“We’re actually excited for the opportunities to come out of that mine,” said Sansbury. “There’s nothing apart from the farming industry. There’s nothing to really employ people.”

The problem for the small communities that dot the peninsula is that, for now at least, no one knows what is going on.

All people know is the mine will be downsised, but even this is unclear as questions remain about what a smaller mine means for the local community.

The Department of State Development said in a statement if the project were to change from what has so far been approved, a new approvals process would be triggered.

“If Rex proposes changes to the scope beyond what has been outlined in the mining lease proposal, a separate assessment and approvals process must be undertaken, which would include consultation with the community,” said the statement.

Hard times ahead?

Since the resources boom in 2007, the mining industry has come to dominate the Australian economy, bringing with it record profits and turbo-charging the local economies of Western Australian and Queensland states.

The peninsula is just too important. The local community will make it as hard as possible and costly as hell for the company.

- Bill Long, farmer

But South Australia largely missed out when in 2012, BHP Billiton put on hold the proposed expansion of its Olympic Dam uranium mine at Roxby Downs in the state’s mid-north.

Since then, the South Australian state government has turned its attention to getting smaller-scale mining operations up and running.

But the mining industry has been in trouble lately as it is largely driven by Chinese demand for raw materials, and there have been fears that growth in China is slowing.

Most recently, this has contributed to iron ore prices falling to their lowest level in five years, and if the trend continues, the future stability of Australia’s mining sector may be at risk.

All of which concern the Yorke Peninsula farmers, who fear the long-term sustainability of their land is being traded for short-term monetary gain.

“The peninsula is just too important,” said Long, whose land is not directly affected. “The local community will make it as hard as possible and costly as hell for the company.”

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