Honour for environmental activist farmer, 83, surrounded by mines on three sides


For 30 years anti-pollution campaigner Wendy Bowman has stood firm against mining giants, supporting other landowners under pressure to sell

Each morning just after dawn, if you stop at the top of the hill that separates the town of Singleton from the tiny village of Camberwell in New South Wales, says Wendy Bowman, youll see this brown scud across the sky.

It doesnt go over the ridges; it stays in the valley, going up and down all the time. She mimes a slow sieving motion: up, down.

The dirty halo of pollution hovers above the open-cut coalmines that surround her 190-hectare property in the Hunter Valley, 200km north of Sydney. Bowman has lived in the farming region for most of her 83 years and is one of Camberwells last remaining residents.

Bowmans farm, surrounding her picturesque cottage, is a bastion of resistance. Photograph: David Fanner

In the past 30-odd years she has seen communities divided, then conquered, by coalmining. Surrounded by mines on three sides, Bowmans farm surrounding her picturesque cottage, Rosedale is a bastion of resistance.

In 2010 the Chinese-owned company Yancoal proposed extending the Ashton South East open-cut mine: an $83m project to extract 16.5m tonnes of coal over seven years. An initial objection on grounds of air and water pollution was overturned on appeal in 2012 and the expansion was given the go-ahead by the New South Wales state governments planning assessment commission. More than half the coal that would be extracted was under Bowmans property.

That proved to be quite the barrier. She refused significant offers, reportedly in the region of seven figures, to sell it to Yancoal.

Their solicitor rang me and said, I think Ill come over and well discuss the purchase price, she remembers. I said, I wouldnt bother if I were you. He said, Why? I said, Im not selling to you, so dont contact me again.

I havent heard from them since.

Yancoals silence was not to be taken for acceptance and the company launched a protracted legal battle to get the expansion over the line. In November 2015 the state court of appeal upheld an earlier decision that the mine could proceed only on condition that Bowman sold Yancoal her land.

It was the first time an Australian court had placed such a restriction on a mining company. By then the David and Goliath-style battle between Bowman and Yancoal, as it was reported, had been before the courts for nearly five years.

An open-cut coalmine in the Hunter Valley. Photograph: David Hancock/AFP/Getty Images

It was such a weird decision, she says. Yes, the mine could go ahead, but And the but was me.

This straightforward act of refusal put into practice Bowmans years of activism against mining in the Hunter Valley, for which she has been awarded a Goldman environmental prize for grassroots advocacy. The so-called green Nobel recognises six individuals each year one from each of the worlds geographic regions with a one-off payment of US$175,000.

Speaking before her departure for the US to accept the prize, Bowman says she still regards the award, offered in a phone call four months ago, with a mixture of bemusement, suspicion and fear. There was all this clapping in the background. I thought, Theyre having me on. It all became obvious what it was and, since then, its frightened the death out of me. If you think of all the people in New South Wales, in Queensland, who are fighting for the environment I mean, why me?

Her principal objection to the proposed mine expansion was that it risked polluting Glennies creek, an important tributary of the Hunter river and a water source for most of the farms in the area.

She experienced the devastating impact of this herself in the late 1980s. After her husbands sudden death in 1984, Bowman widowed at 50 took over running their sizeable dairy farm, Ashton, alone.

By then, mining companies had started making their mark on the land. The all-night noise and light, the pervasive blanket of dust Bowman paints an apocalyptic picture of those first forays into coal. The blasts were just dreadful, she remembers.

When a coalmine tunnelled under a nearby creek, it contaminated the water the farm relied on for irrigation, causing her lucerne crops to fail. For a 12-day stretch in the stinking hot summer of January 1991, she remembers, the water was unusable.

That same year she founded the Minewatch NSW group to support landowners under pressure to sell. Farmers with financial difficulties or who were otherwise vulnerable would be made offers they couldnt refuse that came with gag orders.

This divide and conquer, as we call it dividing families, dividing communities is not the right way to treat people There were husbands and wives broken apart, fathers and sons didnt speak.

It was the dust from construction of a new mine nearby that dealt the final blow to Bowmans Ashton property, contaminating the vats in which the milk was stored.

She managed to convince Rixs Creek mine to buy it from her but remained in the historic homestead of Granbalang her marital home since 1958 until 2005, when she was given six weeks notice to leave.

Bowman has scaled back her farms operations, retaining a herd of Droughtmaster cattle. Photograph: David Fanner

Bowman then settled in Rosedale, another family property vacated by a tenant, where she has remained stubbornly since.

With the profitability of the Ashton mine expansion dependent on her land, Bowman was a key plaintiff in the public interest case against it in the NSW land and environment court.

At the time, Justice Nicola Pains ruling in December 2014 that the expansion could only go ahead if she agreed to sell caused Bowman real anxiety. I kept thinking, Why would you do that? It left me dangling in the air, left them dangling in the air.

Now she thinks of it as a strategic move: had Pain refused the expansion outright, Yancoal could have taken its case to the high court. (Pain and the land and environment court did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)

As it is, they cant do a thing, says Bowman. Afterwards, I thought it was probably a very clever thing to do but it did frighten me for a long while, because I didnt understand what she was getting at I just wish I was 50 years old and not what I am that Id live a lot longer, and stay here.

In June 2013 Bowman received an Order of Australia medal in recognition of her fight to protect communities and farmland from mining.

Energetic and steely with a keen, amused sense of the ridiculous, Bowman has three adult daughters and six grandchildren. Each wall of her kitchen bears a framed collage of snapshots from trips she has taken, some recently, to Madagascar, Mauritius, Runion, Canada, Iceland and Greenland.

But on a daily basis its her property that sustains her, keeps her interested and active and especially the animals that also call it home. She talks with evident pleasure and evocative detail about the lizard (my friend Bluey) that lives under the steps; the butcherbirds that visit her daily; the odd echidna that rolls into the garden; even the cockatoos that have ravaged her olive tree.

The farms operations have been scaled back significantly but she retains a herd of caramel-coloured Droughtmaster cattle that she looks after with a staff of two.

Bowmans property is an expanse of green bordered by mines. Were surrounded, she says. Coalminings mark on the environment is glaring; its impact on peoples health is more insidious. The fine grey dust that blankets her property thats what everybodys breathing, says Bowman, who says a CT scan showed she had lost 20% of her lung function.

Without water, theres no life. Photograph: David Fanner

A local GPs independent study of Singleton school children aged eight years and over suggested one in six had limited lung capacity, compared with one in 20 nationwide.

If Im puffed going up a hill, it doesnt matter at my age, but what effect is it going to have on these little children? The government says when its a very dusty day, mothers just should keep them inside the house and shut the doors and windows.

Should children have to live like that? No, its all wrong.

Over the decades, Bowmans farms have been ravaged by floods, droughts, disease all the spanners that nature can throw. Balancing the demands of the environment and agriculture is delicate enough without mining thrown into the mix.

Without water, theres no life, she says. The pollution thats happening is affecting humans and animals I dont believe this unbelievable greed for money in a hurry is worth completely just wrecking the land and the water for generations to come.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/24/honour-environmental-activist-farmer-83-wendy-bowman

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