Agforce backs Felton's fight against coal

Queensland’s Felton stands at the coal-face of the current debate between agriculture and mining that has seen recent features on Four Corners and Radio National's Australia Talks. The long-time township and farming community is under the suspended sentence of a coal mine and so-called “clean coal” plant tearing their lives apart. But, now with the support of Agforce, the Felton community is fighting back...

As you drive south of Toowoomba, you enter into the farming communities of the Darling Downs, on some of the most fertile land in Australia. Driving down off the range, you come into a shallow valley and immediately encounter numerous banners slung to the side of combine harvesters, containers and tractors by the side of the road, shouting slogans: 'Felton's fine without a mine', 'Food security not coal'. This is the Felton Valley, and the land is under threat.

For over 150 years, the valley has been home to small-scale horticultural farming families, living in a closely settled and tight-knit community. The township of East Felton itself is just an odd collection of buildings, a produce store, a couple of houses and a community hall, but the community spirit here is palpable. Today (29/07/09), a meeting has been called by the local group Friends of Felton to discuss with Queensland’s peak-agricultural body Agforce a mining development proposed for the area. It seems like everyone is here, from older farmers who have been in the area all their lives to young children not yet in school.

Felton is key to the Queensland Government's claim that mining and agriculture can co-exist, a claim fervently denied by the local community who have seen for themselves what has happened in farming communities on the Darling Downs that have consented to mining on their land. Acland is mentioned several times during the meeting; a nearby town whose new mine has meant cropping has become almost unviable, land value greatly reduced and windows that have to be kept tightly fastened in the face of excessive coal dust.

In Felton, a mining company is not only proposing an open-cut mine of 900 million tonne capacity, but also an on-site petrochemical plant and a 30m high levee wall, almost as tall as the hills that provide the valley boundaries. Some of these hills will be removed in order to get at the coal beneath them. During the meeting, Friends of Felton spokesperson Rob McCreath reminds us that mining will also risk destroying the underground water aquifers, contribute to the decline of the Murray-Darling system and decimate food production in the valley.

Beyond the local level, Queensland is the largest producer of coal in the largest coal exporting nation on Earth. The burning of coal and other fossil fuels is the sole greatest contributor to global climate change, which is already impacting significantly on populations most at risk. This means that the production of coal in the Felton Valley will contribute to wider social and environmental ramifications.

Later in the day, community members take the Agforce representatives on a tour of the Valley, visiting two properties within the proposed mining zone. They point out the fertility of the soil and the productiveness of the land, some of the most fertile in Australia. Running the soil through your fingers, the richness of the alluvial plain is obvious in its deep colour and the way it crumbles in your hand.

Despite this productivity, the Queensland Government does not have a definition of 'prime agricultural land' and thus does not have a comprehensive management plan to protect such land for the future. It is angering and saddening to think that the Felton community and the food security of future generations is being compromised by the profit driven, short term interests of mining and government.

Meanwhile, we were invited to lunch at the homestead of a wonderfully friendly Felton landowner and spent a fun hour playing cards with the family and eating soup made from home-grown pumpkins. We were told stories of the future, the schools the children would attend the next year and the crops that were to be planted in the coming months. It's stories like these that will no longer be heard if the coal companies get their way and mine for coal here.

There is anger here, anger that Ambre Energy has promised an open community consultation process and instead has refused let anyone know who is on the committee. Anger that the community has been treated with disrespect by the mining exploration, fences driven over, water tanks shot through by wayward contractors and lack of notice given before entry.

It was in this environment that the afternoon meeting of the Agforce Pittsworth Branch unanimously passed three motions: to support the Felton community in their struggle against the mining companies, call for a moratorium on coal mining on cropping lands and to work to define 'prime agricultural land'.

Agforce Vice-President Ian Burnett was there at the meeting.

'We will try to stop mining here. I believe it could be the opportunity to set a precedent and say 'no' to coal mining'.

This support is vital to the Felton community, and they have worked hard to receive it. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.

A phase-out of the coal industry and a just transition to a renewable energy economy that is respectful of workers, indigenous peoples and farming communities is required to deal with the twin challenges of food and climate security.