Farmers in focus: Surrounded by coal mines

26 June 2017

Wendy Bowman is an 83 year old farmer determined to keep farming and to protect the community’s health, land and water from encroaching coal mines.

Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize

My name is Wendy Bowman. I farm in Camberwell, a small village in NSW, Australia, surrounded on three sides by coal mines. In 2010, Chinese-owned Yancoal proposed to extend an existing open cut mine onto my grazing lands and to the banks of one of Hunter River’s most important tributaries. I am determined to stay on my land and protect the community’s health, land, and water from further destruction.

Water is life. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. Many hundreds of farmers rely entirely on underground water from wells and bore holes for their animals and irrigation. However, over the last few decades, coal mining has destroyed many of the underground aquifers in the Hunter Valley. As a result, during droughts, which we appear to be facing more and more often because of climate change, farmers have to rely on stored dam water. Unfortunately, during droughts, the dams do not get replenished as they used to. It can potentially become a dire situation for livestock and for crops.

In 1991, I first met with some like-minded people and started the organisation called Mine Watch. Our aim was simply to find out what our rights were as land owners, and then try to decipher the mine speak in the very large Environmental Impact Statements (EISs). We had to read them to prepare our submissions to the planning authority when we opposed the mine proposition, but some of the EISs were as thick as three encyclopedias. It was a monumental effort to make sense of them, but it was worth it. Now, Mine Watch has grown in political and social importance. It has a substantial media presence, and a significant impact on government policy.

I still farm on my land, albeit surrounded by mines, but the work is far from over. Our underground water supply is now particularly threatened by the mining companies’ desire for profits and the government’s desire for royalties. Money still speaks louder than the need to protect our environment. This must change. We must all work together in our efforts to leave a viable land for future generations.

Wendy Bowman won the 2017 Goldman Environmental prize. This is an extract from her acceptance speech.