News & Current Affairs
27 October 2014
Yorke peninsula farmers fight for family heritage in bitter battle with miners
Farmers and miners are locked in conflict over some of South Australia’s most productive cropland. And both are at the mercy of the dizzying rise and fall of commodity prices
Ripening cereal crops on farmland that forms part of the mining lease in the Yorke peninsula, South Australia.
On a clear day, the first thing that impresses a visitor to South Australia’s Yorke peninsula is colour: a sea of cereal crops from rich green to faded yellow meets deep red crumbling cliffs that tumble into the cool blue Gulf St Vincent waters, crowned by a limitless expanse of South Australian sky. The region west of Adelaide has been settled for generations by farming families who have transformed a once hostile environment into productive cropping land.
But in July the South Australian government granted a mining lease over 3,000 hectares of agricultural land on the peninsula, sowing uncertainty about the future of a family farming tradition that took decades to build.
“It was bloody hard – it didn’t just happen,” Malcolm Redding says of building his farm.
“And it’s a dream to pass it on to our sons,” his wife Cathy adds. “We had a succession plan in place … if you haven’t been through it, you don’t understand. [We’re] just custodians for the next generation. It looks like an asset but it’s not, because you’re just there for the next generation. And that’s how it’s been in our families for years.”
That continuity for the Reddings and neighbouring farmers south of the port of Ardrossan was first thrown into doubt in 2010, when the mining exploration company Rex Minerals requested access to their land to take soil samples.
After encouraging early finds of copper, gold, iron ore and uranium, Rex bought a clutch of farms. In July, the state government granted the conditional lease for an open-cut mine 2.4km long, 1.1km wide and 450m deep, with underground working projected to reach a depth of 750m. Proposals for the site, known as the Hillside mine, included waste rock dumps 115m high, rerouted roads, a tailings dam and processing plant.
In SeptemberRex Minerals accepted 99 conditions imposed on the site, and those conditions were made public. But dismayed locals who want to stay on their land were left with a barrage of questions over the environmental impact of potentially toxic levels of copper and uranium dust on water sources, crop yields and marine life.
Several farmers who own freehold land within the granted mining lease have not agreed to sell, or have refused contact with the company altogether. Rex owns less than half the land within the lease, and under South Australian law cultivated fields are exempt from mining activity without the landowner’s consent. But farmers fear the start of mining on the land Rex owns would leave them with little choice.
Brenton Davey, 49, says he has had no contact with Rex since a meeting several years ago. Asked how he feels about handing over the land that’s been farmed by his family for more than 140 years, he shakes his head, eyes cast down.
“It pulls right at your heart strings. Just to see that all slip by … I can’t possibly see that happen … I want to fight for my right to farm.”
His wife, Sue, 44, says: “We’ve been in limbo all the time and now it’s worse because we don’t know what’s going on. It’s very stressful.”
Brenton’s father was born in the house where the Daveys and their three teenage daughters live, overlooking the sea from a gentle slope. Their property shares a boundary with the proposed open pit. Davey farms beef cattle as well as cereal crops, and says he has been told the mine’s blast zone would extend 400 metres inside his fence.
“You can’t [farm] anything on that land if they’re going to be blasting,” he says.
But the emotional attachment runs much deeper than any practical obstacle to continued farming. “You wake up in the morning, you don’t leave the family home,” Davey says. “The family comes with you and you do your job … It’s our business, it’s our play, our recreation. It’s the whole kit and caboodle.”
Moving to another farm nearby is unthinkable, he says, both because of the tradition and because of the extent of mining exploration licences granted over the peninsula. Davey fears no land will be exempt. “Why should I shift and be badgered all around the countryside? There’s nowhere to go, so I want to stay right here.”
Mining protest Yorke peninsula south Australia A old piece of farm equipment delineates the edge of the proposed mine area to demonstrate the size of the lease. Photograph: Kirsty de Garis/The Guardian
Farmers fear any compensation awarded by the environmental, resources and development court would not come close to meeting their real costs if they were forced to move, let alone the intangible cost of giving up family traditions.
Davey’s voice wavers. “What sort of compensation … can [Rex Minerals] give me for my heritage?”
Roger Clift is another farmer whose land is directly affected by the Hillside mine. In his case, a road would be diverted to bisect part of his property, where he farms sheep and grain. The planned redirection would cut through paddocks, leaving him with six triangular fields on either side of a new road. Moving his sheep would become a logistical nightmare, he says, and the new shape of the paddocks would make GPS-guided farming techniques unworkable.
“[Rex Minerals] just approached me and told me that’s where the road was going, whether I like it or not,” he recalls. Standing in a shearing shed buzzing with activity, Clift says his great-grandfather cleared the land where he now farms.
“There’s the fifth generation there,” he says, jerking his thumb in the direction of two teenagers beside him.
Uncertainty over the future of the land was compounded just eight days after the mining lease was granted, when the chief executive of Rex Minerals, Mark Parry, resigned and the company announced an extended feasibility study.
This includes the possibility of limiting activity to a smaller start-up mine, which would reduce the need for expensive work such as renovating the port at Ardrossan, where a pipeline was to arrive from the mine for shipping out slurry.
But farmers and residents of the coastal hamlet of Pine Point, immediately south of the lease area, are anxious about the direction the smaller mine could take.
The state minister for mineral resources and energy, Tom Koutsantonis, told Guardian Australia in an email: “If Rex propose changes to the scope beyond what has been outlined in the mining lease proposal, a separate assessment and approvals process must be undertaken, which would include consultation with the community.”
It’s not just the farmers who have been left in a frustrating state of limbo. Development of the Hillside site is estimated to cost about $800m and Rex has not yet raised enough funds. The end of the commodities boom has changed expectations for mining projects across Australia.
The executive director of Rex, Steve Olsen, told Guardian Australia from Beijing: “Commodity prices have come off, which makes getting the larger amount of capital difficult. The smaller-scale project is more likely to be successful. Then we can give greater clarity to everyone involved.”
Asked about the further acquisition of farming land within the mining lease, Olsen says: “There’s no compulsory acquisition in South Australia. You can only force the proposal so far. [But] like any development plan, we have an obligation to maximise outcomes from the asset.”
He says the mine will not directly interfere with Brenton Davey’s land, although “he may be impacted” over time.
Davey and others say the impact is already evident, as the proposal has strained family relationships and cast a shadow over small communities. He resents his second cousin selling land to Rex in the early days of the project; Cathy and Malcolm Redding’s two sons, in their 20s, are poised to take over a family farm that may cease to exist at some unknown date.
The farmers who want to hold on to their land pin their hopes on the dramatically changing circumstances of the mining industry, rather than any protection the state government might offer, or any action that might lie in their own hands.
“I hope they don’t get enough money to keep going,” Roger Clift says simply. “It’d be nice to see them go.”
The United Nations proclaimed 2014 the year of the family farm. But in this windswept corner of Australia, swirling economic currents far beyond the control of anyone on the Yorke peninsula make it increasingly uncertain whether the battle to maintain and pass on that tradition can succeed.