Australian farmers fight huge mine in Liverpool Plains, NSW

A farm gate, Australia Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Huge coal deposits lie under some of Australia's best farming land

Coal and gas mining continue to encroach on some of Australia's best farmland, pitting miners against farmers and creating a deep rift between the parties of the nation's ruling Conservative coalition.

In the 2006 movie Superman Returns the young super hero plunges to Earth from planet Krypton, landing in the wide, undulating plains of Smallville, Kansas.

His spacecraft pierces the region's rich black soils and - so the story goes - Superman is raised on this sweeping farmland where he learns to run and jump and fly.

A decade on from the filming of the Hollywood blockbuster, the real life location - Breeza on the Liverpool Plains of rural New South Wales - is bracing itself not against kryptonite but against coal.

Massive mine

Earlier this month, Chinese company Shenhua received Australian government approval for a massive open-cut coal mine three kilometres from tiny Breeza.

The approval was one of the last hurdles in the company's mission to dig up 10 million tonnes of black coal a year to ship from Newcastle 282km (170 miles) to the east.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The rich soils of the Liverpool Plains have been farmed since the 1820s

The project has been almost eight years in the making but it is only now that a very public fight has broken out between the region's competing stakeholders.

With a physical footprint far larger than the City of Sydney local council area, the Shenhua Watermark mine has been described by local farmers as agricultural genocide.

It will operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week over its 30-year life span.

Food bowl

One such farmer, Fiona Simson, described the Liverpool Plains as an iconic agricultural region because of its outstanding natural resources.

Ms Simson, whose cropping farm is 50km from the proposed mine, is a former president of the NSW Farmers Association.

"We must and will keep fighting," she told the BBC. "This project is not in the national interest."

The Liverpool Plains is often referred to as NSW's food bowl and is counted among the best agricultural land in Australia because of its fertile black soils, temperate climate, good rainfall, and rich surface and underground water resources.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Australia is one of the world's biggest coal producers

The Association says fighting the A$1.2bn ($887m, £570m) mine is the most important challenge facing NSW farmers.

Shenhua says the mine will not damage the region's groundwater supplies and promises to look after vulnerable ecological communities.

And Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt says the mine is subject to some of "the strictest conditions in Australian history".

Political rift

But the approval has deepened a rift between Australia's governing Liberal party and its coalition partner, The Nationals - which has traditionally represented farmers - in a relationship already strained by the expansion of coal seam gas (CSG) mining over farming land.

Earlier this month, about 120 people protested against CSG exploration in Gloucester, about 260km north of Sydney.

It was the 14th protest in that area, and one of hundreds of similar protests by farmers, Indigenous Australian land owners, conservationists and urban residents against the encroachment of coal and gas extraction onto rural, and in a few cases, urban land.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A range of groups are angry about the expansion of coal and gas exploration

Agriculture Minister and Nationals member Barnaby Joyce, whose electorate of New England takes in the proposed Shenhua mine, has publicly condemned Mr Hunt's decision to approve it.

"I think it is ridiculous that you would have a major mine in the midst of Australia's best agricultural land," he wrote on his Facebook page.

The Deputy Prime Minister and leader of The Nationals, Warren Truss, seems to agree.

"The Nationals recognise the vital role that the coal mining industry plays in our national economy, but we believe that prime agricultural land should be preserved for its vital role in producing food for future generations," his spokesman told the BBC.

Rural dissatisfaction

The Nationals' inability to hold back the tide of black coal has left many farmers frustrated, forcing them into unnatural alliances with environmentalists and the Greens party and leading to the formation of groups like Lock the Gate.

"We should not put our food bowl in jeopardy for the short-term benefit of a coal mine," says NSW Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham.

"Our capacity to feed ourselves is obviously fundamental to the national interest," he says.

The Nationals have already felt the pinch of rural dissatisfaction at the ballot box. At the NSW election in March, the party lost the northern seat of Ballina to the Greens and nearby Lismore nearly went the same way.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Horse breeders and viticulturists are worried about mining near their land

There are 110 black coal mines across Australia. Another 91 new mines or expansions of existing mines are awaiting approval, according to Greenpeace.

In many cases, farmers who have worked the same land for generations are finding themselves forced off that land, says Greenpeace campaigner Dr Nikola Casule.

"These sorts of alliances [between farmers and environmentalists] are becoming more and more common," he says.

But Ms Simson says the issue should not be about politics.

"All sides of politics have had a hand in this," she says of the Shenhua mine.

"The people in the region feel let down by not just the Nationals.

"If [the Labor Party] had still been in power, we'd potentially still be in the same situation now."

Saffron Howden is a Sydney-based writer.

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