Adani coalmine activists gear up to fight: ‘This will dwarf the Franklin blockade’

Anti-coalmine activists in Melbourne.

As the protest against the Carmichael project – Australia’s largest proposed coalmine – moves beyond the courts and into the realm of civil disobedience, activists have a clear warning: ‘If you’re in bed with Adani, you’re a target’ Across Australia a secretive network of activists are laying the groundwork for what they expect will be the biggest environmental protest movement in the country’s history. Of course this won’t materialise if Adani and the rest of the miners proposing to open up one of the world’s biggest coalfields walk away from Queensland’s Galilee basin first.


But standing idly by on the assumption that the economics of the massive coal projects won’t stack up – at a time the world is trying to reduce carbon emissions to limit global warming to under 2C – is not a choice these activists are willing to make.

And so the campaign to take the fight against Australia’s largest proposed coalmine, Adani’s Carmichael project, to another level, beyond the courts and into the realm of civil disobedience, is under way.

Behind the Galilee Blockade campaign is a core group of activists well versed in the “security culture” required of those intending to jam a serious monkey wrench into a major industrial project.

This describes the kind of precautions people take when there’s a very real prospect that arrests and charges will follow, as well as police surveillance and leaks that could tip off direct-action targets.

They share strategy via encrypted messaging. When meeting to talk specific action, phones are left out of the room.

In an era when coercive hearings by crime body “star chambers” could apply as equally to environmental protesters as to organised crime figures, this closely guarded information is being thoughtfully withheld from close family.

And amid a public call for volunteers and new activists that has so far attracted pledges from more than 11,000 people, including almost 8,000 committed to direct action in their local areas, organisers remain alert to the possibility of infiltration by police or others.

Among their ranks already are veterans of emblematic past environmental campaigns, those who took part in actions against the Franklin dam, the Jabiluka uranium mine and those who sank the coal seam gas industry in New South Wales.

So far criminal defence lawyers in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, the New South Wales northern rivers, Newcastle and Tasmania have agreed to be on hand when legal support is required.

Among the key organisers of the campaign are two women thousands of kilometres apart, who have chosen to remain anonymous.        

One of them is an IT specialist with two decades’ experience working for government and the corporate sector, whose research skills are said to be formidable. A voluminous list of companies and lobbying organisations to be targeted in the campaign has been compiled.

Guardian Australia has seen the list, which stretches across every capital Australian city through to regional centres and to Africa, South America, Asia and Europe.

Some of these targets will be presented this month to grassroots activists, who will be invited, with strategic support, to form and execute their own specific plans for direct action in their local city or region.

The industry, while not privy to the exact forms these actions will take, knows something is coming. A former Queensland Resources Council chief executive, Michael Roche, has said he expects protesters would “throw everything at Adani’’.

“Even if Adani does move into construction in 2017, experience in NSW suggests the campaign against Carmichael will move to a civil disobedience phase, testing the resolve of the politicians,’’ he told the Courier-Mail.

One of the more novel future strategies in play involves an arm of the Galilee Blockade called “Grandparents for the Galilee”, and comes courtesy of one “grey nomad” volunteer who pondered how the mobility of retirees with motorhomes and caravans could best be harnessed.

It’s a twist on the proverbial spectacle of the slow-going grey nomad proving a frustrating obstacle to others on the highway. Think of the obstructive power of 30 motorhomes, or 50 caravans, and the potential for one of the more unorthodox direct actions in environmental protest history.

Organisers report a sense among older volunteers that they need not have so much concern as their younger peers about the impact on their careers of being arrested in an environmental protest.

The public face of the Galilee Blockade is Ben Pennings, a Brisbane-based activist of 26 years’ experience and a Greens lord mayoral candidate. He quit as one of the party’s elected spokespeople to take up this new role at the pointy end of the environmental movement.

Pennings began his career at 18 with Greenpeace, sailed on the Rainbow Warrior 2 aged 20, and was inducted into the “security culture” of an organisation that had its first vessel of that name blown up by French intelligence operatives.

Despite a long history of involvement in direct action he has never faced criminal charges, which he jokes is “a bad look in the environmental activist world”.

Pennings says after resistance to the proposed Adani mine in the form of legal challenges and lobbying, public campaigns and petitions – including efforts led by mainstream non-governmental organisations – the time is right for more direct methods of protest.

“The efforts of mainstream NGOs are reasonably predictable, especially when they’re large organisations with deductible gift-recipient status or reliant on large donor bases,” Pennings says.

“We are not predictable. We can target companies in different ways they don’t expect. Some of the NGOs may not be happy with our approach. But we think that a diverse movement is a strong movement, an unpredictable movement is a strong movement.”

Pennings says there is demand from grassroots activists for this next step, with “a ton of people who want nothing to do with NGOs, who only want to do the frontline stuff”.

“It’s definitely the time for this strategy. Companies and shareholders deserve to know this is what’s going to happen. Investing in the destruction of Aboriginal homelands and the reef is going to cost you big time, not only with security costs but in regards to insurance, unions, the lot.

“The coal industry has already lost their PR war about the Great Barrier Reef. People will fight to protect it.”

Organisers, who are funding the costs of the campaign through their own pockets, plan to target not just Adani but also “key Adani contractors, right down the line”, he says.

“If you’re in bed with Adani in any major way, you’re a target,” Pennings says. “If you’re a major contractor, you’re a target. If you’re providing finance, you’re a target. If you’re looking to provide finance, you’re a target.”

Pennings is at pains to point out that the Galilee Blockade is “not Australia’s Standing Rock”.

Standing Rock involved large-scale protests against an oil pipeline on the site of Sioux traditional tribal lands in the US last year, where security used attack dogs and police used water cannons on protesters.

The site of the proposed Carmichael mine, inland from Bowen, is the traditional land of the Wangan and Jagalingou people. It is remote and inaccessible.

“It’s not our business [to be there], it’s the traditional owners’,” Pennings says.

“We respect their right to take legal steps to protect their land. There is no way we would even consider going on site, unless we were invited. But there’s no plan for a single person to go up there.”

Instead, the plan is for the campaign front to take form through a vast array of localised acts of protest. “You won’t have to go interstate, you won’t have to travel back there for court if you’re arrested,” Pennings says. “You can do it in a group with friends, repeatedly, in local blockades.”

It’s a strategy drawn from the playbook of successful activists elsewhere, notably those campaigning against animal testing in the US.

“They’re pretty full-on. They’ve gone as far as to target the people who supply the toilet paper,” Pennings says.

He says the idea is to make clear to companies involved that “it’s going to cost them, in security, insurance, and the unions are going to freak out”.

The group is determined to shun reckless acts that will put anyone in harm’s way but “people will get arrested, people will get charged”.

A taste of what actions might be to come can be glimpsed in the previous campaign targeting the coal rail company Aurizon over its plans to invest $2.6bn in GVK’s Alpha venture when that looked the mine most likely to open up the Galilee.

That campaign, “Over our dead bodies”, involved everything from hunger strikes, flagging plans to stop coal trains with cardboard boxes on tracks, through to Christmas stockings full of coal delivered to executives’ homes.

“Board members and executives have to be made responsible for their actions,” Pennings says. “Saying I didn’t know or I was just following orders doesn’t cut it. We’re talking about runaway climate change threatening hundreds of millions of lives.”

Pennings and others bought shares in Aurizon and attended its annual general meeting, where they asked discomfiting questions for the board regarding the costs to shareholders of becoming a target of activists, through the need for extra security, insurance, industrial action and recruitment costs.

He was greeted by name on the way into the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre by anti-terrorism police, who he says were there for a small “dry run” for the G20 meeting at the same venue the following year.

Pennings says it is his hope that an unprecedented protest movement is ultimately not required and that Galilee mining plans that would create “an environmental and human catastrophe” come to nought.

But if they come closer to fruition, Pennings says he has “no doubt” the direct action campaign will be the largest in Australian history.

“This is going to dwarf the Franklin blockade. That’ll be nothing.”

Guardian Australia has contacted Adani for comment.

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