Environmental Anecdotes (Episode 1) Beating BHP with Bravado and Blue Tarps


The historical information in this blog is accurate so far as I can recall. However others are welcome to add comment which correct any factual inaccuracies and the blog will be updated as people do this.


February 13, 1988. BHP’s team had been drilling at Coronation Hill near Kakadu for months. More than enough time for us to carefully prepare to confront the crew from the Big Australian, as it was then known. In 1982 the preparation for the Franklin River blockade had taken months, with hundreds being trained in non-violent protest, with offices and communications plans carefully laid.

But in the NT, we didn’t do things like that. No, the plan was laid a couple of days before over a cafe latte and a bowl of pasta at the Roma Bar which was, then, the only place in the NT where, mythology had it, you could get a decent flat white. It was also the meeting place for all things ‘left’ in the NT.

Here with a single good bomb you could have wiped out most the NT Labor Party (if you could call it left), most of the leftie-stirrers from the Northern Land Council (NLC), every progressive lawyer in Darwin and anyone else with pretensions to undermining civilisation as the NT Government, the miners and the pastoralists saw it.

“What’ja doin’ next week?”. The question forced out through a mouthful of good Italian pasta and parmigiana was, it turned out, a leading one. No invitation to a good party or a day at the beach. Or this remains the legend of how this blockade was planned by a few of us.

No the invitation was to appropriate a leased NLC vehicle, obtain an access permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority, with the consent of traditional custodians, chuck in a couple of blue tarps and swags, an esky with enough food and drink for a week and rack off to Coronation Hill, which lay in the middle of the proposed Stage 3 of Kakadu National Park.

Kakadu is one of Australia’s best known and important national parks. For many years Governments had been promising to incorporate a third stage into the park, the areas comprising the old Gimbat and Goodparla pastoral stations. This would protect the headwaters of the South Alligator River and the famous Yellow Waters.

The discovery of gold, platinum and palladium in the old uranium mining areas of the South Alligator River Valley had started the Commonwealth Government backtracking. The Wilderness Society, ECNT and other organisations had been campaigning to ensure that the Commonwealth Government kept its promise.

The Wilderness Society had recently obtained a legal opinion written by barrister, Tim Robertson and fortified by that and a few beers later that day, the idea of occupying BHP’s drill rig was agreed.

Coronation Hill Permit
The permit from the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Authority to enter onto the South Alligator Bula Complex.

The plan was to…well…go the exploration area. We had no plan about what we would do, no idea how many people BHP had working there, what their reaction would be, how long we might have to stay. There was no plan B in case of illness, violence or police arrest. It was the ultimate fly by the seat of your pants action.

In fact you could say…strategy preparation: nil. Planning for potential confrontation and violence in an isolated area, 150 kilometres from the nearest help? Don’t you worry about that. Communications strategy?..nope. Breakdown or injury? She’ll be right. Arrest potential and strategy? WTF. Exit strategy? What? But we were well armed with hubris and over-confidence.

Coronation Hill Age article
Government announces plans to “legitimise” BHP’s right to be at Coronation Hill (in effect stating their doubt about existing rights)

At this stage there were two of us, Richard Ledgar and me who had agreed to go. Not sufficient for our major intervention. We carefully fished around for a third person, making certain that we didn’t know them or anything about them, just to be certain that we could increase the margin for error as much as possible. We found Scott Wootten who agreed to accompany us on our meticulously well planned confrontation with what was then Australia’s largest company.

Ranger water
The NT Government had a fairly blasé attitude towards Aboriginal health and welfare (cartoon, Michael Pickering)

Richard and I knew each other well but we’d only just met Scott. So there was clearly no risk, under stress, for internal tension between the three of us. Our only contact with the outside world, was two way radio, powered by car battery. In the event of that failing, we planned to resort to carrier pigeon.

So, backed by the Wilderness Society (TWS) and fortified with local support from the NT Environment Centre (ECNT), the moral backing of the traditional custodians and sanctified with the legal opinion provided to TWS, which said that the drilling at Coronation Hill was illegal, off we went into the night.

Late on the 13th a white land cruiser, with our team of three, approached the first locked gate on the road on the road to Coronation Hill. The least organised, most impromptu and most poorly resourced “blockade” in Australian history was about to start.

rotated_Michael Pickering Cartoon - Eyes of their whites
The Government’s view of the land councils was that the problem was just the white advisors of the Central and Northern Land Council (CLC, NLC) and without them the traditional owners would be compliant (cartoon Michael Pickering)

We were armed with our permit from senior Jawoyn traditional owner, Peter Jatbula, and keys which allowed us access to Coronation Hill an area designated  a sacred site by the Aboriginal Sacred Sites Protection Authority. Other than that we had no right of entry and had to pass through several locked gates. The keys we had – issued as part of the Aboriginal permit, would open some, but for the rest our key was a bolt cutter.

Our legal opinion written by Wilderness Society legal counsel advised that the renewal of the mining exploration lease at Coronation was invalid as it had been incorrectly renewed. This was to be brandished at the unknown number of BHP workers, a bit like a wooden stake or cross at a vampire in the absolute knowledge that they would instantly admit defeat and pack up and leave.

Chris Harris, Richard Ledgar, Scott
How the NT News (Darwin’s newspaper) saw the Coronation Hill occupation

We planned to occupy BHPs rig and other equipment to highlight the illegality of the lease, to denounce the proposed gold mine in what had been promised by the Hawke Government as Kakadu National Park’s 3rd stage, and to condemn the desecration of Jawoyn sacred sites.

We had food for a week and expected to be arrested within a couple of days; we hoped the occupation and our arrest wouldlead to national media coverage on mining in and around Kakadu, an issue that had already been highly controversial and frequently covered by the mass media, and thus force the Government’s hand.

Our only means of communication with the outside world was via VJY, which was a short wave radio network which provided communications between remote areas in the territory. In the event of accident or any conflict with BHP staff we were more than 150 kilometres from any friendly assistance from comrades in Darwin.

Members of the Federal Government appointed Resource Assessment Commission visit Coronation Hill to inspect and report back to the Government

Just on dusk we passed through the final gate onto Coronation Hill itself, which we unlocked with our special key obtained from the hardware store. No illegal BHP chain shall go uncut!!

The proposed gold mine was the site of an old uranium mine and was part of what the Jawoyn traditional owners saw as “sickness country”. The boundaries of sickness country coincided almost exactly with the areas which had produced uranium deposits and had been mined subsequently.

Traditionally Bula, the spirit that inhabited this area, would create sickness if disturbed and this was one reason that local Aborigines were so opposed to further mining.

The drill site was quiet, with no security and no BHP employees present; everyone had knocked off for the night and were down at the main camp about 100 metres away. We did a quick recce and then set up camp just above the drill site and next to the front end loader. Camp was simply the vehicle, a tarpaulin, fridge and basic supplies, plus three swags and the radio. Satisfied that no one know we were there we turned in for the night.

Coronation Hill occupation
Occupying the drill rig while the BHP crew wait for us to make a mistake.

It was a dawn call in the morning as we were uncertain what the movements of the workers on site would be, but we were certain that they wouldn’t be offering us café latté from their BHP funded espresso machine.

We occupied the drill rig and then went to find the employees. In essence BHP had two pieces of equipment essential to their operations, the drill rig and a loader/backhoe. Due to our careful strategic planning we had just sufficient blockaders to occupy both and have a spare person to guard our camp, radio and to prepare food.

Neither machine could be left unattended at any time, so we could only change shifts when there were no BHP staff present. This left us all plenty of time to relax comfortably in the tropical sun with nothing to do and no one to talk to for hours on end, as clearly envisaged in our strategy.

We arrived in their camp and presented them with the legal opinion and a media release, as well as a notice stating that they were in illegal occupation of a sacred site and therefore liable to prosecution. All this was done with some degree of trepidation. Paranoia told us that had they so chosen the workers could have quietly murdered us, disposed of our bodies in some old mine shaft and then denied all knowledge of our arrival.

They were requested to cease operations and leave the area. The employees were clearly gob-smacked and didn’t know what action they should take. They returned to the accommodation area to discuss the unforeseen arrivals.

BHP coronation hill advert 10-3-1989
A story about BHP’s infamous advert posing the “it’s the platinum and palladium or the Pig-nose turtle” question

As it turned out in the long-run, we might just as well have pierced their entire operation with the metaphorical vampire stake since the legal opinion and the subsequent publicity that the occupation generated led directly to the abandonment of the entire mining proposal.

We returned to the drill pad and called the Environment Centre NT (ECNT)  to update them and give the go-ahead for the first media release. This set of a storm of action at our media centre under our blue tarp with numerous calls from national and local media. The media centre consisted of a portable radio and battery extracted from the NLC vehicle.

The use of the NLC vehicle and radio was another stroke of brilliant planning.  From the point of view of the NT Government, which behaved as if the proposed Coronation Hill mine was the only thing saving the NT from the next great depression, this implicated the NLC.

Monsoon forest at the creeks on the way to Coronation Hill

To the NT Government the NLC (which was the regional representative organisation of the traditional owners) was the Great Satan which continued to seduce the naive Traditional Owners from their rightful path – a path which would lead them to untold mining riches and, of course, more wealth for their white brethren.

So our use of NLC equipment, even though it was leased to Richard and technically entirely under his control, was a gift to the government. The end result being that a week later, on our exit from Coronation Hill, he lost his consultancy contract with the NLC. In our brilliance and careful planning we failed to foresee something so bleeding obvious.

But, ironically, it was our almost entirely non-existent media strategy and threadbare equipment that proved our greatest strength. Every broadcast over VJY, which is an open radio network, every media interview and every communication with our comrades in Darwin were monitored by anyone caring to listen including the Commonwealth and NT Governments, the NLC, the media, BHP and, no doubt, the intelligence services, among others. Normally one might think this a great disadvantage but it proved to be the opposite.

BHP’s chosen strategy was to intimidate us with their presence and sheer numbers. So whenever we called anyone or anyone called us, they would crowd around the radio to listen in thinking this would prevent us being able to talk for fear of communicating our deadly and secret strategies.

We quickly realised it had the opposite effect because we could bullshit away about how great our media coverage had been, or how the NT Government couldn’t intervene because it was Federal Government land and how the Federal Government had received legal advice that we were right about the leases having been incorrectly granted. For the BHP staff, listening in, it was quite demoralising.

To our support crew back in Darwin we’d tell them of our plans to stay as long as necessary, despite having no clue about how we could possibly do that since, after a week, we’d be reduced to three rice crackers between us; leaving aside the likelihood that we’d either die or heatstroke or boredom or both.

Our greatest satisfaction was knowing that our small effort at preserving Kakadu was being broadcast to the world to the world at remarkably regular intervals via a string of calls from national and regional broadcasters.

This included one ABC reporter who greeted us one day with “How is it going, Comrades?” completely unaware that every right wing philistine who thought the ABC was a nest of communist vipers was listening, and that his comment simply reinforced their prevailing views about the ABC.

Apart from this we resorted for entertainment to a range of unorthodox recreation. Among those, for me, was sitting up on the drill rig trying to learn to whistle effectively. I sat there inserting my fingers into my mouth at various different angles for a couple of days while various siffling and snuffling sounds emerged, much to the bemusement of the gathered BHP drillers, until one day a clear high pitched whistle emerged.

For the next two days I continued to practice while both my colleagues and the drillers became increasingly annoyed at being subjected to a variety of meaningless piercing whistles for no apparent reason. But at least now I could attract attention when needed.

Aside from this and reading, there was little to do except drink tea and coffee. We were ill prepared for our week long sojourn. And of course even had there been reception in this remote area of Kakadu-to-be there were no mobiles and no computers in this epoch.

By day four a sort of somnolent truce had settled over the place but on day five the BHP management decided they needed to get rid of us. This involved variously increased efforts at harassment including verbal and physical intimidation and culminating in hiring a helicopter to hover over the camp tarpaulin in an effort to blow it down and away.

Unfortunately for them, they were unaware that I had a private pilots licence and was well aware that the pilot of the chopper was acting in breach of all aviation rules. A quick call to the ECNT, assisted by the eavesdropping of the BHP interlopers, in which I said that I planned to make a formal complaint to the aviation authorities, at which point the pilot was at risk of his or her licence and the chopper quickly disappeared.

By day seven it was reasonably clear that we had successfully stopped work and elevated the issue up the national agenda. We had done this to the degree that we were shortly thereafter invited to Canberra to discuss the issue with then Resources Minister, John Kerin. Nevertheless it was clear we were not going to achieve our recently decided goal of getting ourselves arrested and therefore further elevating the issue in the public eye.

The NT Government could not arrest us because the mining lease was on Commonwealth Land and the Australian Government, we believed, was unwilling to do so because having clearly indicated that we believed we were legally on the lease, we had also earlier declared publicly that we would prosecute for unlawful arrest if anyone tried to arrest us.

By the end of day seven we made the decision to leave, leaving only the issue of how to get out of the place. The problem being that the NLC had decided to reclaim its vehicle leaving us stranded with no transport. So we had to arrange to get picked up by our colleagues in Darwin.

In keeping with the rest of the occupation, our exit from Coronation Hill was met by yet more unplanned eventualities. As we proceeded down the road back to Darwin, travelling at our normal speed of about 110 km, I was driving David Cooper’s landcruiser when I glanced out the window to see a wheel accelerating past the passenger side window. Moments later the vehicle lurched and their was a great grinding and tearing sound.

The bolts holding the rear passenger side wheel had sheered off, leaving us stranded 150 kilometres from Darwin in the middle of the night. So ensued a trip back to Pine Creek to get a new wheel and wheel studs. A glorious end to our brilliant campaign.

Postscript: While the Coronation Hill occupation elevated the issue a step or two higher on the national agenda it took another two years of vigorous campaigning by environmental and Aboriginal organisations before the Government even reduced the size of the exploration area (which it euphemistically called the “conservation area”) and until 1991 before the Commonwealth Government stopped the exploration and included the area in Kakadu National Park.

Images from these campaigns: Campaigns and Direct Actions

 

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