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Adani’s Australia Story: Why Thousands of People Are Protesting a $16-Billion Coal Mine

From environmentalists to politicians to indigenous groups, there is strong local opposition to the Adani project in Queensland. The Wire examines the factors at play and how the Adani Group is responding.

Protestors wear masks of Gautam Adani and Malcolm Turnbull, depicting the unpopular billion dollar government subsidy. Credit: Stop Adani Alliance

Protestors wear masks of Gautam Adani and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull, depicting the unpopular billion dollar government subsidy. Credit: Stop Adani Alliance

Note: This is the second story in a five-part series that will examine how the Adani and Carmichael coal mine has divided the Australian public and in the process, sparked fierce debate on issues such as coal-based energy, energy financing, jobs and the rights of indigenous people.

On March 17, Annastacia Palaszczuk, the premier (head of government) of the north-eastern Australian state Queensland, was walking out from the Bhuj airport’s single terminal in Gujarat.

She had made the trip from Australia along with eight mayors from Queensland, and was on her way to the Adani group’s Mundra port, 60 kilometres away, to ‘show that Queensland supports the Adani project’ in Australia. As she was about to get into a muscular black SUV waiting for her at the terminal, a group of four angry Australians confronted her. They expressed, vociferously, their opposition to the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland proposed by the Adani group and argued that the mine would cause irreparable damage to the Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest coral reef system. Palaszczuk defended the project by saying that 10,000 regional jobs would be created by Adani’s project.

That brief back-and-forth would broadly form the crux of most arguments between the conservationists who oppose the mine and anybody who supports the mine.

Imogen Zethoven, Great Barrier Reef campaign director at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, was one of the four anti-Adani activists who confronted Palaszczuk in India.  “At the time she (Palaszczuk) was there, a massive bleaching event was happening at the Great Barrier reef due to warm sea temperatures, and she was there to convince Adani to invest in a project that would destroy the reef completely”, Zethoven told me when I met her in August in Sydney.

Geoffrey Cousins, millionaire businessman turned conservationist and now president of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), was also a part of the activist group that went to India. “We went to India to tell the Indian people that the mine is not welcome in Australia even though the Premier claims that it is,” he told me over the phone recently.

A day prior to confronting Palaszczuk at the Bhuj airport, the group of activists was in Ahmedabad at the Adani group’s corporate headquarters in an attempt to meet Gautam Adani and deliver a letter. The attempted meeting did not transpire, but they did manage to deliver the letter signed by 91 distinguished Australian citizens, including cricketing greats, Ian and Greg Chappell, the authors, Richard Flanagan and Tim Winton, among others. The letter, addressed to Gautam Adani, urged him to ‘abandon the Adani Group’s proposal to dig the Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee Basin’.

“I feel deeply about climate change. Coal is not the future, it is the past. According to experts, the mine is not financially viable. Adani’s track-record in India is not great. This mine should not happen,” Ian Chappell told me in a phone conversation. The former captain of the Australian cricket team also feels that the project, which has caused large-scale protests across Australia, could hamper relations between India and Australia. “It has the propensity to hamper relations,” he said.

The Adani group responded to the letter by way of a media statement claiming that the mine has the full support of regional Queenslanders, before going onto deride those who had written the letter, “We categorically reject such motivated letters of representation by a very small group of 76 misled people,” the statement read.

Less than a week later, on March 22, Bob Brown, co-founder and former leader of the Australian Greens party, announced in Canberra a coalition of 13 environmental groups to oppose Adani’s coal mine. The objective, plain and simple, was in the name of the alliance itself, ‘Stop Adani’.

“Individual groups had been actively opposing the mine since the time Adani made the proposal. But, we felt that there was a need for a more consolidated campaign and that is why we brought the groups together,” Brown told me recently.

Sam Regester, campaigns director at GetUp, an activist group part of the ‘Stop Adani’ alliance, feels that the ‘Stop Adani’ branding helped due to its simplicity. “The message was simple, it was clear, and it resonated with people. The coalition has really helped multiply the scale of the campaign,” he said.

Grassroots movement

The ‘Stop Adani’ alliance got to work immediately by organising road-shows, community events to spread the message, protests outside the offices of Australian banks urging them to not fund Adani’s project, and protests outside the offices of politicians pressurising them to speak out against the mine.

The campaign was getting good press coverage reaching out to more and more people. “It is a very clever and effective campaign. They have been able to mobilise support focusing on the environment impact of the mine. Coal has become the villain for a lot of Australians and Adani is very much a part of that broad narrative,” said Paul Williams, a political scientist at the Griffith University in Queensland.

A 'Stop Adani' protest in Sydney in July. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

A ‘Stop Adani’ protest in Sydney in July. Credit: Kabir Agarwal

As the ‘Stop Adani’ campaign gained popularity, the Adani group was losing the perception battle rapidly. Questions were raised about Adani’s track-record of alleged environmental breaches in India, allegations of financial fraud in India, and opaque ownership structures of the companies in Australia. “A lot of information came through that was not exactly flattering for Adani. It would be fair to say that the activists have won the public relations battle,” said Joshua Robertson, Queensland correspondent for the Guardian Australia, who has covered the Adani mine project since 2014.

Opposition to the mine has come from environmental activists and common citizens who are fearful of the damaging impact of the Carmichael coal mine and rail project on climate change due to increased emissions. “People are concerned about the impact the mine will have on global climate change. Also, locally, climate change has been impacting the Great Barrier reef significantly. We have seen two bleaching events in the last two years, which have already killed as much 50% of the reef. This mine will destroy the reef altogether,” said Zethoven. In addition, Adani group’s project involves dredging of 1.1 million cubic metres of sea-bed near the Great barrier reef which raises further concerns about damage to the reef.

Local rights

To add to the challenge posed by environmental activists, Indigenous groups have also waged their own battle. The Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) people are the traditional owners of the land on which the mine is to be built, and they have been unwilling – despite numerous attempts by the Adani group to get their consent – to part with their land.

“No one can come to your ancestors’ country and tell you what to do. Our heritage is not theirs to destroy. We will not allow that to happen under any circumstances,” Adrian Burragubba, traditional owner and spokesperson of the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Family Council, said to a large audience gathered at a protest meet in Brisbane in late July.

“Adani has tried to manufacture consent by giving money to people and all kinds of means. But, they still have not succeeded in getting the consent that they need for the mine to go ahead,” Burragubba told me after the protest. “For Aboriginal people, the land is sacred. We have a spiritual and religious connection with our land. It is like our Sistine Chapel. And they want to buy us off by offering money,” he added.

The Adani group’s apparent dependence on a A$900 million concessional loan from the Australian Federal Government’s Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (NAIF) has only added fuel where there was already fire. “Without the tax-payer funded loan the Adani project is a dead duck. The Australian government is trying to employ socialism in reverse, i.e., taking the money of the people and giving it to the rich, instead of the poor. With enough government subsidy even building a bridge from Australia to India can become feasible,” said Brown.

The Adani group has claimed that it was only when the government asked to increase the capacity of the railway line that the loan application was made. “Initially, we were building our own private railway line for use only by us. But, the government said that they would want us to increase the capacity of the railway line to handle further shipments from the Galilee basin,” said Ron Watson, spokesperson of Adani Australia.

According to the results of a recent survey, 66% respondents do not want the government to spend public funds on the rail line, while 18% were in favour of the public funding, and 16% remained undecided. The NAIF is yet to make a final decision on funding the 388-kilometre rail-link between the Carmichael coal mine and the Abbot point port. But, it has been reported that the Adani group’s project is among the five that have been shortlisted for funding.

Broadly, the project has received support from all political parties in Australia with the exception – as one would expect – of the Australian Greens party. Matthew Canavan, resources minister in the Australian Federal government until recently, was – and still is with much reduced influence – one of the most vocal supporters of the Adani project.

In July, while on Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s (ABC) popular panel discussion program ‘Q&A’, Canavan offered a spirited defence of the project. He put forward a thesis that the project was in fact, on an average, ‘good’ for the environment. His argument was that the coal from the Carmichael coal mine is 60% higher in energy content than the coal available in India, implying that more of Indian coal will have to be burned to generate the same amount of energy, causing higher emissions.

“So, this coal is going to India, it will replace and displace coal of a lower energy content. It means fewer carbon emissions for the world,” Canavan told the audience. He also went on to argue that the mine will not impact Australia’s overall carbon emissions as the coal will be burnt in India and not Australia.

Outside the ABC studio in Sydney that night, a group of around 60 activists and citizens had gathered to protest against the mine and Canavan’s support for it. “You know, people are not stupid. These kinds of absurd logic are not going to work. Emissions don’t stay contained in one country or region. That is why the problem is global warming and not local warming,” an angry Claire Pyvtt (63) told me at the protest. She had travelled 20 kilometres to be a part of the protest. “It is my duty to stand up for future generations. For my children and grandchildren,” she said.

Protesters, young and old, were animated as they gave speeches, sung songs, played drums, while using the by now popular chant, ‘Stop Adani! Stop Stop Adani!’ whenever they had a spare 30 seconds. All of them were carrying posters with creative messages and most of them wore black ‘Stop Adani’ t-shirts.

Bob Brown, co-founder of the Australia Greens Party, speaking at a Stop Adani rally Credit: Monte Bovill

Bob Brown, co-founder of the Australia Greens Party, speaking at a Stop Adani rally Credit: Monte Bovill

‘Stop Adani’ merchandise in the form of t-shirts, earrings, bandanas, socks, stickers, and masks, make for frequent sightings in the streets of Australia. Gemma Borgo-Caratti (28) is national director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), an organisation of under-30 climate activists which has been campaigning against the Carmichael mine since 2011 and is part of the ‘Stop Adani’ alliance. “We wanted to reach out to the young in a big way. And young people, these days, are willing to put their beliefs out there, on what they wear. That is how the idea for the merchandise came,” she told me.

To complement the mass civil protests, organisations such as the ‘Galilee Blockade’ take a more direct action approach. “We target specific corporations who are working with Adani. Recently we closed down two asphalt plants of the Downer group which is Adani’s biggest contractor. Around 100 people were physically there to stop their work. The idea is civil disobedience,” Ben Pennings, spokesperson for the Galilee Blockade, told me when I met him in July in Brisbane. The organisation has also encouraged people who are sympathetic to the cause to apply for jobs that the Adani group advertises from time to time and ‘infiltrate’ the organisation to damage it from inside. The efforts attracted a legal notice from Adani’s lawyers in Australia advising the group to refrain from ‘unlawful activities’. The Galilee Blockade responded with a video. “The simple message from me is f*** y**! I am not going to do what you tell me and that is the message from hundreds of activists around the country,” Pennings said in the video.

“The campaign has definitely concerned the Adani group. The campaign has manged to create a negative image of Adani. The image is of a big rich Indian guy with a dodgy past who wants to influence politicians with big money. The Adani group definitely wants to change that image to that of a more garden variety mining company,” said Robertson.

Adani offensive

Looking for an image makeover, the Adani group launched an advertising campaign in July with TV commercials and full page advertisements in leading National dailies. The ‘This is Adani’ campaign spoke about the benefits that the project will bring to Queensland in terms of jobs. ‘When you hear Adani think ‘energy’, think ‘future’ and think ‘long-term’’, one of the advertisements read.

“The campaign is to explain which company is Adani – the company that is portrayed by the activists or the one which has diverse interests. We have the Adani foundation in India and are involved in wide range of business enterprises including agro-business and renewable energy. We are being wrongly portrayed by the activists and their friends in the media,” said Ron Watson, spokesperson of Adani Australia.

I asked Watson why a mining company that doesn’t sell any service or product in Australia, need to run an advertising campaign in Australia. He responded by attacking the activists. “In the last financial year, the top 12 environmental organisations in Australia spent a hundred million dollars on campaigns. Most of which was against coal and most of that was against Adani. They have spent millions on advertisements. They don’t understand that three hundred million people in India don’t have power, and our project will provide that. Why do these people sitting in air-conditioned rooms, eating hot meals have the right to deny those people access to power?” Watson said.

Bob Brown of the Australia Greens party, however, believes that this merely a sign that the Adani Group is worried.

“The only option for people like Adani when they can’t win an argument on logic, is to attack their opponents. It is a sign of growing alarm in the Adani camp,” said Brown.

“These protests are real and they will happen. And we don’t intend to stand on the side and say ‘please change your mind’. We intend to stop Adani from building this mine,” he added.

Kabir Agarwal is an independent journalist whose writings have appeared in The Kashmir Walla, The Times of India, Mint, Al Jazeera English and The Caravan. He can be found on twitter @kabira_tweeting.