Krey vs Rio Tinto: a community struggle against coal expansion

This article was originally published in the April 2014 issue of New Internationalist.

John Krey moved to the village of Bulga in New South Wales expecting a quiet retirement. The 73-year-old did not expect to be taking up another full-time job: fighting mining giant Rio Tinto. For the last four years, Krey, with fellow-members of the Bulga Milbrodale Progress Association (BMPA), has worked to stop the expansion of the Warkworth open-cut coal mine to within 2.6 kilometres of his community.

‘It’s a David and Goliath battle and we’re determined to beat the buggers,’ says Krey, a former quantity surveyor. ‘The history of open-cut mines in our area is that it destroys villages.’

In April 2013, the BMPA won a legal challenge against a previously approved expansion of the mine. In the ruling, the judge highlighted the project’s ‘significant adverse impact on biological diversity’, as well as negative social effects and noise and dust pollution. However, soon after, the New South Wales government proposed policy changes, which gave economic benefits a higher priority. Rio Tinto reapplied for expansion and it was granted by the Planning Commission in January 2014.

‘The Planning Department has worked hand-in-glove with Rio Tinto to ensure this project was fast-tracked to approval,’ said Steve Phillips in a press release for the Lock The Gate Alliance, an Australia-wide movement that fights coal and gas expansion.

The mine’s expansion should be global concern – Greenpeace predicts that Australia’s coal exports will account for 1,200 million tonnes of carbon dioxide pollution each year by 2025.

The Supreme Court is now considering the case and, at the time of going to press, was expected to give its decision in March 2014.

Meanwhile, the BMPA has also taken its case to the Independent Commission Against Corruption and is not ruling out direct action. Activists from elsewhere have said they are prepared to ‘stand in front of the bulldozers,’ says Krey.

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What is internationalism anyway?

To celebrate their 40th anniversary, New Internationalist held an event at Amnesty International UK HQ called ‘What does it mean to be an internationalist today?’ An impressive panel of speakers was tasked with answering the question: Jessica Horn, Asad Rehman, Dan Smith, John Hilary, Mariéme Jamme, Nitasha Kaul and Jonathan Glennie.

I wrote a summary-cum review of the event for the New Internationalist blog but to see the speakers themselves check out the videos from the night, also the great blog series ‘The Internationalists‘.

Gender and Social Movements

This summer I started work at the Institute of Development Studies, based at Sussex University. I do a variety of editorial based things but one of the most exciting projects I have been involved with is the BRIDGE Gender and Social Movements report and online resource.

Exploring issues close to my heart, the report explores the role of gender justice within and between social movements, arguing that sexism, racism, or any kind of deliberate or non-deliberate discrimination can’t be left until ‘after the revolution’ to address. Just because women or gender minorities are present in a group, or if a movement has some kind of ‘justice’ goal, it doesn’t mean that everyone is happy or has the same change to participate. The report also addresses, gender violence, intersectionality, gender justice within the feminist movement itself and includes some really interesting case studies. Written by by the inspirational Jessica Horn, contributions came from 150 activists, scholars and supporters from around world.

I wrote this post based on the report for the IDS Participation, Power and Social Change blog: ‘How to build a gender-just social movement‘.

This also gives me the chance to share one of my favourite passages on sexism and patriarchy: ‘Are you a manarchist?‘ Aimed at anarchists but a challenging read for anyone, of any gender, who considers themselves a feminist and an activist. Gave me something to think about anyway.

More from the New Internationalist website…

I’m now into my last month at New Internationalist. I’ll be sad to leave but who knows what exciting things the future may hold – I don’t yet!

Things have been busy on the website and I’ve been out and about blogging. Here’s some of what I’ve been up to:

I spent two days in London covering G8 mobilisations on the day of David Cameron’s Hunger Summit and the Carnival Against Capitalism. I also headed to the People’s Assembly in Westminster on 22 June, as did New Internationalist co-editor Vanessa Baird.

I also wrote  a post on a new campaign to raise awareness of FGM in Oxfordshire, spearheaded by writer and campaigner Abigal Muchechti.

World Naked Bike Ride: a protest with a difference

This article first appeared in the Ecologist on 27 April 2012.

A group of naked strangers cycling through a city centre is going to turn heads. Every year across the UK World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR), ‘the world’s biggest naked protest,’ is held to try and get people to notice in the name of oil dependency and pollution, car culture and the vulnerability of cyclists.

The two biggest issues for the naked protesters are our continued dependence on oil dependency and the lack of safe roads and pathways for cyclists, helping us to reduce our dependency on oil. The naked part of the protest symbolises the vulnerability of cyclists as road users.

While the rides themselves are a bold statement, there is debate around whether they are effective in communicating the issues behind them. The organisers of the bike ride say campaigning for better protection  of cyclists and promoting cycling itself is the only reason they do it. ‘But bear in mind that those behind it often have their own angle,’ says a spokesperson for the WNBR.

Bigger environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth see the naked protest as something more amusing than effective. ‘I applaud the bare-faced cheek of those taking part in the naked bike ride. Anything that helps raise awareness of pollution and greener modes of transport is a good thing in my book,’ says Andy Atkins, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth (FOE)…

Read the full article here at the Ecologist.

Ctrl.Alt.Shift: Episode 2

My final big project with Ctrl.Alt.Shift is Ctrl.Alt.Shift: Edpisode 2. In a follow up to our podcast on gender equality for International Women’s Day in March this one is all about Climate Change & the Environment. We explore the topic through debate, music, spoken word and comments from some of the people across the world who are already being effected by Climate Change.

Check out the article on the Ctrl.Alt.Shift site here or go straight to listen to the podcast at SOAS Radio here.

Thanks to the team for working so hard to get it done and, of course, to the excellent SOAS Radio for hosting it.

Any feedback welcome!

Direct action at Millbank: Where’s the hijack?

First appeared on The National Student on November 17 2010

‘A small minority ruined it for the rest’ seems to be one of the favourite phrases from those commentating on last week’s protests over rises to university fees and cuts to contact time in Higher Education and Educational Maintenance Allowance to college students. There was still another 50, 000 people on that march so I would say nobody ‘ruined’ it for anyone.

But the movement against education cuts is now in danger of being ruined, not by violence or criminal damage but by the reactions of people like NUS President Aaron Porter who described the thousands of people at the Millbank Conservative Party HQ as “distracting from the message”, although he has now back tracked after intense criticism and says he supports direct action but still talks of ‘undermining’ and ‘infiltration’.

I was there when Porter was challenged on lack of support from the NUS for student activism by Jess Worth from the New Internationalist at student campaigning conference Shared Planet. They were both on a panel discussing how to build a strong student movement and he said the mistakes of the past would not be made again. He also said that the NUS would support students taking direct action unlike the NUS in Ireland which had recently distanced itself from student protest and occupation which ended with violence at the hands of riot police. I spoke to him after the debate was over and he reiterated how he was committed to taking action and would communicate this to Students Union officers.

When I was in university lack of NUS and student union support for student activism was obvious on many occasions. Many students’ union officers are thrown into roles with little to no experience of campaigning on the issues student activists are fighting for, and even though they may support them in this many are career politicians wanting to toe the party line or scared of being too ‘out there’.

A lecture theatre at my former university was occupied over the university’s involvement in the arms trade and divestment, part of a wider UK student movement at the time which saw occupations in universities all over the country. We received support from many lecturers, some of whom came to do talks and show films, while our Ethical & Environmental officer described a peaceful sit in as ‘intimidating’ to other students. Being involved in protest or direct action is all too often portrayed as something for the fringes of society, not a justifiable way for people to act despite the fact that it often gets results.

That’s not to say that our student officers were completely unsupportive of campaigning. For example, towards the end of my time at university earlier this year our city got paid a visit from the ‘Welsh Defence League’, the Welsh version of far right group the English Defence League. A few sabbatical officers, including our President attended meetings about counter demos to the EDL and I even spotted a few of them on the day. Although they were reluctant to outwardly encourage others too loudly to join it, the fact they were there made a real difference to students that saw them and could feel that the people we had elected into our union, to be the voice of students actually took interest in important issues and not just party politics and sports teams. I visited my former university this weekend and was glad to see students still wearing their “no to cuts” t shirts with student’s union branding.

Largely thanks to NUS motivation and organisation 52, 000 people took to the streets on last Wednesday. For many of these students it was their first protest and they wouldn’t have been there without the active encouragement of their students union’s. There is now thousands of people who will have caught the bug, enjoying the thrill of making their physical presence felt, thanks to encouragement from the NUS they aren’t worried about being in trouble for protesting or being seen banner waving.

Every campaign will have different reactions and different methods but its important it stays united in its aims. People are angry and this is just the beginning, by attempting to distance themselves from direct action Porter, and others risk delegitimising and disempoweriong the whole movement.

The direct action taken at Millbank represented the anger of thousands of students. While only a few people caused any damage to the building many just took advantage of the opportunity to get inside the building and make the space theirs. Hundreds of genuine students and lecturers were outside cheering them on. A lot of people who had never taken direct action before were compelled to ignore stewards telling them to carry on to the march and instead joined the hundreds outside Tory HQ, whether from being swept up in the excitement, a need to make their anger known or just realising the importance of the moment.

Clegg warned of “Greek-style unrest” over cuts in an interview with the Observer before the general election and now this is beginning he is enemy number one. Many students voted for the Lib Dems on their tuition fee policies and much to the joy of the other two parties, especially Labour they have betrayed their promises and, it has now emerged, they planned to break this promise before the election even happened. There is also a Tory villain, reducing public services and looking after the rich is what they’re known for, something the Labour Party seems very keen to promote.

The issue of cuts in education can’t be dropped now with the excuse of a few smashed windows or a movement disunited at the hands of politician types. One passive protest won’t unfortunately change much, there needs to be a sustained campaign that goes down every avenue: Negotiation, protest, direct action and anything else.

Students are already organising: Manchester and Sussex Universities have had occupations over the issue and a mass student walkout has been planned for November 24. Some lecturers have also spoken out in favour of grassroots action: Last week 100 lecturers and staff from Goldsmith’s University in London signed a statement in support of the protests part of which said, “The real violence in this situation relates not to a smashed window but to the destructive impact of the cuts and privatisation.”

After a media onslaught of shock that ‘adults’ were sticking up for the ‘student trouble makers’ another statement was released saying that while the lecturers did not condone violence but wanted to “condemn and distance ourselves from the divisive and, in our view, counterproductive statements issued by the UCU and NUS leadership concerning the occupation of the Conservative Party HQ.”

A fear of being too radical seems to be behind a lot of NUS rejection of the direct action. But it is the politicians who do not always tow the party line, who aren’t afraid to let their voices and more importantly the voices of the people whey are meant to be representing be heard who end up being most respected.