A fierce battle is playing out in Australia over what could become one of the world’s biggest coal mines. 101 East investigates.
From the air, rugged bush and farmland stretch as far as the eye can see.
This is ground zero in a fierce fight, pitting the interests of coal miners against those of local landowners.
Indian energy giant Adani is set to transform this land in Australia’s northeast into the country’s largest coal mine. The company claims work will begin at the site in October.
It’s promising jobs for Australians and cheap electricity for India’s poor.
But, farmers, indigenous people and environmentalists fear the mine could cause irreversible damage, although the Australian government says it has passed a stringent approval process.
101 East travelled to Australia’s northeast to meet the key players in the long-running battle to stop the mine, and to India, to investigate the company’s track record.
The Australian Farmer
In the parched land where Bruce Currie runs close to 500 head of cattle, water is precious.
With this area in northeast Australia prone to crippling drought, Currie relies on groundwater to keep his cattle alive.
But now he fears the water that is the lifeblood of his 25,000-hectare property could be at risk.
He’s been waging a long-running legal battle to stop the Indian company, Adani, from opening a massive coal mine about 100km away, which he says could destroy the groundwater.
“Even if they don’t impact greatly on the quantity, if they impact on the quality that’s a real concern, because there’s no way of cleaning that water again,” he says.
“Groundwater … is the most essential element to life. If we don’t have it, it will jeopardise our viability here.”
Currie is afraid he could ultimately lose his livelihood. He fears more mines could open up in the area after the Adani project begins.
“We get no support from the government, and actually they’re trying to make it easy for the companies to get in and walk all over the top of landowners,” he says. “It’s just a barbaric, callous, uncaring act.”
The “Godfather of Coral”
With its abundance of marine life and vibrant coral, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Charlie Veron has spent much of the past 50 years submerged in this underwater paradise, earning him the nickname, the “Godfather of Coral”.
As one of the world’s leading marine biologists, he says the Great Barrier Reef is already in crisis, with extensive bleaching and coral dying due to climate change.
He believes the Adani coal mine would inflict another catastrophic blow on the reef.
“The decision to go ahead with the Adani mine is just about the most unbelievably negligent decision you can possibly imagine,” he says. “It’s the worst thing you can possibly do for the Great Barrier Reef.”
Veron says extracting and burning coal releases carbon dioxide, one of the chief greenhouse gases responsible for climate change.
“If this planet is going to turn around and stop the effects of climate change, stopping burning coal is the most important thing,” he says.
“We don’t need any more coal mines, anywhere in the world. Coal has been killing corals, it has been the prime driver of climate change.”
Instead of providing the world with more coal, Veron argues that Australia should “leave coal in the ground, where it can do no harm.”
The Indigenous Land Owners
The Doongmabulla Springs are a sacred site for the local indigenous community, the Wangan and Jagalingou people.
Believed to be more than 100 million years old, the freshwater springs are integral to their culture and traditional ceremonies.
But they fear the springs could dry up if the mine goes ahead.
“We’ve been given a duty and … that is to keep the springs going; the rivers flowing; to look after the country; to protect the water,” says Murrawah Johnson, from the Wangan and Jagalingou people. “And we fail if we don’t do that and if the threat to the water is the mine, then we have to stop the mine.”
The Wangan and Jagalingou people twice refused to sign a land use agreement with Adani.
An agreement was eventually signed last year but the Aboriginal community remains divided. Murrawah accuses Adani of corrupting the agreement voting process by bussing in indigenous people from outside the area to participate in the vote.
“It’s not a true decision of the Wangan and Jagalingou people, to begin with,” she says. “I think it just makes clear to us what we’re up against. We’re going to keep fighting and that’s where we stand on it.”
The Indian Farmer
Shakur Ibrahim is a third-generation cattle herder in the coastal town of Mundra, in India’s Gujarat state.
He remembers the days when his family grazed cattle close to home and he could leave the herd to roam freely.
“There was designated cattle-grazing land,” he says. “It was open ground. Our forefathers have always lived here. They never had a problem.”
But Shakur says the land available for cattle has dwindled since Adani built the country’s biggest private port and second-largest coal power plant nearby.
“There’s been a lot of change. All the grazing land for our cows has been taken and big bungalows and buildings have come up,” he says. “Now, there are boundary walls all around. They’ve not left one acre of open ground.”
Shakur says he now has to herd his 20 cows through an open sewer, then walk for several more kilometres before he finds a patch of grazing land.
He worries about how his children will make a living.
“I don’t know what the future holds for the next generation. We’re not going to have anything to do anymore,” he says. “If we’re already so troubled with the situation, things are only going to get worse for our children.”
Over the last 10 years, Naran Gadhavi has gathered evidence that he claims shows Adani has severely damaged the environment in India’s Gujarat state.
“Adani was like an earthquake for all of us when he first came here,” says Gadhavi. “The environmental violations have brought tremendous suffering for locals.”
After the company opened a power plant in the coastal town of Mundra, Gadhavi says salinity levels in the groundwater rose, killing off many local crops.
He says Adani has reclaimed land by dumping sand on mangroves and blocking creeks, leading to a decline in fish stocks.
Gadhavi’s claims are supported by independent reports commissioned by government departments and the judiciary.
He also alleges that he and his brothers were beaten by security guards when they tried to enter a local forest near Adani’s Special Economic Zone. But Adani claims Gadhavi has attacked its officers and trespassed on company land on other occasions.
Gadhavi has assault charges against the company pending in court and is also defending Adani’s assault charges cases against him.
“The problem we face is that we are fighting people who have a lot of money. And the government is supporting the rich and the powerful,” he says. “They go to any extent to cover up the matter and silence any form of opposition.”
The Adani family, led by Gautam Adani (above), is one of the richest in India, worth more than $8bn.
The Adani Group is India’s largest private power company, but its vast business empire also includes a range of other businesses, including logistics and agriculture.
In a statement to 101 East, Adani denied all allegations that its operations in India had caused environmental damage. It said it always abides by the law and has not breached environmental regulations.
Adani denied that independent investigations have found that the company breached government regulations. It also denied that the investigations found evidence that the company had destroyed mangroves and sand dunes and blocked creeks surrounding the company’s operations in Mundra.
“Adani Group had planted more than 2,800 hectares of mangrove along the coast of Gujarat. This is probably the highest plantation of mangrove by any corporate in India,” the statement said.
Adani also refuted claims that it had acted inappropriately in its dealings with the indigenous community in Australia, which was required to vote on whether to agree to the new mine.
Links to the Report of the Committee for Inspection of M/s Adani Port & SEZ Ltd 2013 Report commissioned by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry:
Sunita Narain report
Senthil Vel visit report
Summary of findings
The full report can be downloaded here
Click here to read Adani’s full statement