Science, Tech & Environment

Farmers and miners clash in Australia

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Strip mining for coal in Australia's Hunter Valley (Photo: Jason Margolis)

Story by Jason Margolis from PRI's The World. Listen to audio above for full report.

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It's not easy being a farmer in Australia these days. They had 12 years of drought. The government is threatening to cut water supplies. And if that weren't enough, many farmers feel they're second fiddle to the mining industry.

Take the example of Wendy Bowman.

"Next door to us, a mine was put right on our boundary. The dust and the blasting and the noise at night… The dust covered all the pastures. The cattle wouldn't eat the pasture some days because the dust was so thick and heavy."

Bowman lives in the Hunter Valley, a rich agricultural area in southeastern Australia, just north of Sydney. This area has good soils, but it also good coal reserves.

Bowman hates the coal companies, seriously hates them. This is what she said about a coal executive: "I heard he had prostrate cancer, and I thought, it couldn't of happened to a nicer person, actually."

She then added a hearty laugh.

Bowman and I drank lemonade on her front porch. She went on for about a half hour about how the coal companies have destroyed the environment, contaminated the ground water, and wrecked the community.

At this point, you might be thinking: I've heard this story before – the big mining company comes in and locals say they destroyed the local environment.

Yes, same story. But the story in Australia has an economic twist. The mines are making people here rich, very rich. Skilled boilermakers earn more than $300,000 a year. 18-year-olds can earn $150,000 a year driving trucks. Bowman says, those teens and all that money… it's a nightmare.

"You know all the young are drunk at night. They've got so much money they don't know what to do with it. They're spending it all on these hipped up, vrrmm vrrrmmm, vrrrrrmmm yutes and things that roar around town at night. It's very sad to see a very, very nice district end up like this."

That contempt that some farmers feel for the mining industry, well, the feeling is mutual.

"The farmland argument, it's a ridiculous argument. It's just a bunch of old cockies trying to preserve their way of life, which has no relevance to today's society," said Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union. (By the way, a cockie is Australian slang for a farmer with a little, insignificant farm.)

Howes says you want to know why mining salaries are so high? It's simple: supply and demand.

"In terms of bankers and lawyers, at the moment, they're a dime and dozen. I can get lawyers very easily. And I would argue that one boilermaker at the moment is worth 10 lawyers for our economy."

To Howes, it makes for an easy calculus: "I'm a dig is up, ship it out guy."

That attitude is making Australia rich. Dig it up, ship it to China.

But can agriculture and mining co-exist? Mitch Hooke, the CEO of the Minerals Council of Australia said, yea, they already do.

"At the moment, mining, there's this perception that it's just big trucks, bulldozers blowing up stuff. And it's all ugly, downright dirty, dangerous, and low-tech. Well, nothing could be further from than the truth."

Read the rest of this story on The World website.

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PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.More about The World.

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