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Scarlett Squire: The land of our times

Scarlett Squire: The land of our times

"Individuals and groups can take action"

In her first piece for the Queen's Young Leaders Programme, #LCJB16 winner for the Pacific region, Ankita Bellary interviews Scarlett Squire about environmental activism in Queensland, Australia.

In the dusty, unrelenting plains of northern Queensland lies an area of land whose vast coal deposits make it the talking point for environmentalists, the government, and big business alike. Mining company Adani is proposing to build the biggest coalmine on the planet – the Carmichael mine – north of the Galilee Basin.

Burning the Basin’s coal reserves would contribute catastrophically to climate change, as well as to the destruction of the culture and land of the First Nations people.

It would also cause irreversible damage to the vital ecosystem that exists in the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches 2,300km along the Queensland coastline.

Queensland landscape devastated by opencast coalmining

Coal mining in Queensland. Photograph copyright: Lock the Gate Alliance

It is the Carmichael mine, among many others that Brisbane-based environmentalist, Scarlett Squire is taking a stand against.

“People here definitely think that mining is a cornerstone of our industry in Australia,” Scarlett tells me, “but actually the employment that the mining industry provides is a really small percentage of disposable income in Australia.”

Scarlett says that there is a widespread belief that the prosperity of the Australian economy depends on the mining sector, but in her eyes, this simply is not true. Mining is a finite resource and its impact on climate change is very real.

Non-violent direct action

Campaigning against a coalmine is a complex task. Numerous parties have been involved in the campaign against the Galilee Basin project – economists, lobbyists, traditional owners, and activists who are being trained in non-violent direction action (NVDA).

NVDA involves activities like occupying a space, blocking a road or locking onto machinery. The idea is that when people protest in large numbers, it’s harder for the police to arrest every single person.

Scarlett outlines three specific aims of NVDA as:

  • to financially hurt the company
  • to get a great media story
  • to physically stop the work to save something, like the sacred land of First Nations people

“You start out really terrified,” she says, “and then once you’re successful at getting locked on, there’s that feeling of achievement. And then come hours of boredom. You’ve got to prepare for that.”

Scarlett believes that with Adani’s terrible financial record, it is unlikely to secure funding for the Carmichael mine. And if they do, “You will have so many people who rock up at the mine site, trained in NVDA and ready to go, I don’t think they’ll last very long if they get to that point.”

Despite having to deal with small-town police trying to dissuade activists from their work, Scarlett is heartened by the support they receive on social media and from locals in the towns they are campaigning in.  

Scarlett Squire holds a sign saying 'Coal terminates here' on a train

Whose land?

Scarlett believes it’s important to acknowledge the diversity of people involved.

“I think the environment movement needs to be about empowering First Nations people. Their entire culture and history has been exploited and destroyed through colonisation.”

She acknowledges that this is a point of tension for people within the movement, as “de-colonising is an ongoing process and it’s hard to do – to acknowledge that there is this deep, structural inequality based on race and culture”.

Scarlett believes that it’s important to “just go and find whose land you are on”. For her, acknowledging colonialism and understanding the history of the land enables you to connect and work with, and learn from, the traditional owners.

Knowing whose land you’re on “builds a really great foundation for understanding how we came to be, where we are, and why environmental exploitation and climate change has become such a massive issue”.

Media misrepresentation

Scarlett also believes that Australia’s largely corporate-controlled media outlets do not represent a diverse range of voices when it comes to the environmental movement. The media often deems activists as crazy, and the government as rational.

“There’s a whole bunch of experts and professionals out there who are saying the same thing [as activists] but it still keeps being branded as ‘extreme green activist wants to stop coal mining’.”

However, even media controlled by press barons like Rupert Murdoch, respond to movements of people and large mobilisation of people on particular issues.

In the environmental movement, Scarlett says, these stories adhere to quite traditional colonialist narratives – for instance, farmers being affected by mining interests. But she tells me that there is little to no discussion of, for example, the Wangan and Jagalingou people whose are defending their traditional lands from Adani’s clutches.

Protesters with signs saying 'no coal' and 'save the reef'

Rally for the reef protest on 25 August 2013 at Queens Park, Brisbane Australia. Photograph by Stephen Hass

Given how much power the fossil fuel industry exerts over political institutions, Scarlett is encouraged by how decentralised the environmental movement is. Individuals and groups can take action regardless of their location, without the permission of or intervention by the government. Scarlett tells me this is important in a system where it’s very easy for industries to put pressure on the government so as to benefit their business interests.

Campaigns being run by organisations like 350.org, urging pollution free politics, are significant in that they are persuading politicians to commit to the seriousness of climate change and stop receiving and giving money to the fossil fuel industry.

She notes that our tolerance levels for certain governmental action are changing. With the Great Barrier Reef currently under threat by both state and federal mining approvals, many people and groups have spoken out about the government’s inaction in actively protecting the Reef.  

It “belongs to the people, so the idea that it’s up to the government, who is supposed to represent us, to decide whether or not it gets destroyed…is a farce, and people are sick of it, I think.”

Keeping going

Environmentalism is not an easy line of work by any means. On a personal level, Scarlett struggles with time management.

“Every year there is an even bigger demand than the year before on your time, and your commitment to action, and getting more people involved.”

For her, activism must be a sustainable practice. She believes that it’s important to know your limits, take time to recover, and be “really upfront and honest about what you can achieve”.