Opinion | Wollar residents 'invisibly displaced'

CHANGING LANDSCAPE: Wollar resident Bev Smiles has seen her community gradually bought out by mining giant Peabody Energy. Picture: Ryan Osland
CHANGING LANDSCAPE: Wollar resident Bev Smiles has seen her community gradually bought out by mining giant Peabody Energy. Picture: Ryan Osland

I DON’T feel I have a future anyway, so I may as well go to jail. Take me!’ These are the words of Bev Smiles, resident of the Upper Hunter village of Wollar.

Last week, after raising concerns about the future of her village at the Project Assessment Commission (PAC) hearing in Mudgee, Bev expressed frustration, anger and sadness. For 10 years, she has fought for Wollar. In that time her community has shrunk and her friends have disappeared. They have been bought out by mining giant Peabody Energy, the company that owns and manages the mine closest to the village, the Wilpinjong mine.

Wilpinjong is one of three mines surrounding the village and the mine that has had the most significant impact on the social fabric and vitality of the community. This partly has been because of Peabody’s property buying strategy, which has resettled about 90 per cent of the pre-Wilpinjong population. The depopulation and resettlement of the community have happened without any proper planning. While there has been a rigorous Environmental Impact Assessment for the project, the issues of property acquisition, resettlement and displacement have never been adequately addressed. This breaks with the primary underlying assumption of international safeguard standards, which states that risks associated with displacement and resettlement should be predicted and mitigated.

Wollar residents are currently fighting a large new extension of the original mine. The expansion, which will bring the mine’s boundary to only 1.5kilometres from the village, has been called the community’s death sentence. Yet, Peabody and the Department of Planning and Environment are not offering any way out for the few residents left. While the remaining residents do not want to leave their district, they recognise that life will become unbearable if the extension goes ahead.

This is why Bev is willing to go to jail: there is nothing left in Wollar and the chance for renewal of the village is diminishing. Life is already hard; if the expansion is approved, life will become unbearable. Bev is no longer only fighting to stop the coal mine or for her community; she is fighting for her life.

Last week, Bev, fellow Wollarian Bruce Hughes and one of their supporters, were arrested for peacefully objecting the proposed expansion of Wilpinjong. At dawn, they gathered with supporters at the mine’s front gate. As mine workers ready to start the morning shift piled up along Wollar Road, 25 protesters asked the NSW Government to see the injustice taking place. With Wollar hollowed, a seemingly ever-expanding mine next door, and a government that appears reluctant to stand up for communities fighting for their right to exist, they felt they had no choice but to take extreme action. “I don’t want to be arrested but I have to stand up for my home,” Bruce says.

The disaster that has struck Wollar residents has been slow and the disruption, dissonance and distress they are experiencing are almost indiscernible to those living beyond the border of the village. They have become invisibly displaced.

Last week, they called on the PAC to recognise their plight and suffering, to stop the expansion and protect the environment, aboriginal heritage, and what is left of the village.

With little trust left in the system, the remaining residents did, however, put in a request for acquisition rights if the expansion is approved. It seems like little to ask.

Dr Hedda Haugen Askland is a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at The University of Newcastle