Zones of sacrifice in the Western Downs gasfield


When I was asked to help organise a field trip for some international visitors from the Sisters of Mercy, I didn't expect to be involved in a memorial prayer service for Chinchilla farmer George Bender. But that's exactly what happened last Monday night.

Sr Aine O'Connor RSM receives a framed photo of George Bender from his neighbour Shay Dougal

George took his own life, ending a ten year struggle with the coal seam gas industry. In an incredible demonstration of courage and resilience, George's daughter Helen made a statement on behalf of the Bender family to the nation's media.

'In the end, George Bender died from a broken heart, at witnessing first-hand the tragedy unfolding around him. He fought to protect the air, land and water from the inevitable permanent damage that this industry is causing and has caused overseas.

'His struggles were not just for himself and his family, but for the whole country that depends on the agricultural and environmental resources unique to the Western Downs area.

'He was prepared to fight for what he truly believed in and call others to account. The tragedy is, in fighting for his country, his struggles are now his legacy, but it is the determination of those who have known and loved George Bender that his sacrifice not be forgotten.' 

Earlier that afternoon I travelled in a bus through what Canadian author Naomi Klein has termed 'zones of sacrifice'. These are places where people, through no choice of their own, must endure a range of negative impacts so that extractive industries can fuel our economy.

I stood at a bore at one of George's properties, that had provided water to cattle for generations. It no longer does this. Instead, it emits continuous gas as the disruption below ground bubbles to the surface.

I heard from landholders who have to make Freedom of Information applications to get results from health tests taken on their sick children. Pastoral visits from clergy now include a jerry can of water as some residents of the gasfield simply cannot drink their own water.  

Something is clearly not working here. Despite mountains of paper regulations, despite a well-resourced Gasfield Commission and Gasfield Compliance Unit, people feel abandoned. It seems that government bodies are enablers and facilitators of the industry rather than regulators and protectors of the people, the soil and the water.

As was explained to me on the bus, a farm is not just another business. It is a person's home, their superannuation, their identity, their very sense of being.

As Helen pointed out, 'It is notable that the property on which George was raised and lived until his untimely death is now within an exclusion zone imposed by the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection as a result of investigations into Linc activities. These investigations form the basis of a criminal prosecution against Linc, now before the Courts, for causing serious environmental harm.' 

The Underground Coal Gasification process might be a different technology, but it formed another front on which George was forced to fight.

Sr Aine O'Connor RSM and Sr Denise Boyle FMDM had not travelled from New York and Dublin to assist with the grieving of the Bender family, though naturally they offered their condolences. They had come to investigate the human rights impact of unconventional gas extraction across the world.

The Sisters of Mercy has special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. They use this voice to highlight the injustice faced through human trafficking and mining. In the mining area there has been a focus on fracking, which is what brought the sisters to the Western Downs region of southern Queensland. 'Our faith is about life,' Sr O'Connor told me. 'And life is about water and food, and people and the planet. So that is why we find ourselves here at this time.'

Sr O'Connor told those assembled of the struggle for water, land and human rights across the globe. She takes the voice of those standing up for their rights to the United Nations.

In Mercy Global Action's office in New York office is a framed photograph of the 'guardians of the lake'. These guardians are farmers and landholders from Cajamarca in Northern Peru. A gold mining company wants to drain the lake which is the life source of all agriculture in the region. A group of 40 villagers never leave the site, ensuring that the mine cannot go ahead.

Those assembled in the hall were moved by this story as they remembered another guardian, of the Western Downs. Sr O'Connor used the words of Pope Francis, 'Certain realties in life we only see through eyes that are cleansed through our tears.' May your struggles not be in vain, George Bender.

Mark Copland

Dr Mark Copland has held the position of Executive Officer for the Social Justice Commission for the Catholic Diocese of Toowoomba for 12 years. He has previously served as a member of the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council.

Pictured: Sr Aine O'Connor RSM receives a framed photo of George Bender from his neighbour Shay Dougal, a landholder in the Hopeland, Chinchilla district. Photo by Karen Auty.

Topic tags: Mark Copland, Chinchilla, coal seam gas, farmers, Sisters of Mercy, George Bender



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Existing comments

This article highlights the adverse personal and environmental effects of fracking in the mining industry. We need to be very careful about degrading rich agricultural areas such as the Darling Downs for short term profit. George Bender's suicide was a tragedy. We don't want any more like that. The Queensland and federal governments need to take a good hard look at what is happening in places like this. The relevant legislation and remedies available to those affected needs to be amended.
Edward Fido | 02 November 2015

Please remember that what is under the land interms of gas or mineral resources do not belong to the farmers, but to the rest of us! That is not to say that we should poison wells or people, and far from it. The gas is at a level much below the water table so this account does not add up, but needs investigating if only to reassure the local population and that is very important. But at the same time we should not be taken in by pseudoscience, local sent-seeking or special interest groups. The common good needs better than that, and the nuns should have something better to do.
Eugene | 02 November 2015

I am a corporate person. I find this very disturbing. Farming is sacrocanct.
Phillip Fitzgerald | 02 November 2015

Thank you Mark, This is an incredibly sad story. My family was off the land two generations ago, crushed by drought and the Bank , but I still have a strong affinity with the land, having been brought up in the bush. This story must be one of many but in this case it caught the public eye. We can't eat or drink this poison so why destroy valuable farmland and peoples' lives??
Gavin | 03 November 2015

Vale we are bound to remember and remain inspired by this most courageous man on the eve of another Global Climate Change Conference at which real and concerned Australians from every walk of life will be virtually unrepresented at present. Most hopefully not for much longer which would only become increasingly INTOLERABLE by all, clearly.
Vale a most courageous person | 03 November 2015

Mark .. great piece on the impact of coal and gas mining on the Downs. Thanks.
Paul | 04 November 2015

Eugene stated: "The gas is at a level much below the water table so this account does not add up". The process of fracking (fracturing abbreviated) is the means by which coal seam gases, trapped in pockets throughout the gas-rich strata are freed from those pockets to rise, finding the way through the fractured strata to reach the bore hole through which the fracking slurry was introduced and out of which the gas will be drawn. With the strata so fractured, the ground water is no longer safe from contamination, as this account so vividly describes. And yes, in Australia, the gas, oil and solid minerals belong to all of us, not to the individual farmers. Equally, all of us depend on the agricultural land, the ground water and surface water, for the food we eat and the wool and cotton for the clothing we wear. Given that most gas extracted from Australian wells is exported, a factor which ensures that the domestic cost of gas remains high for us who ultimately own it, the agricultural and pastoral land has far more inherent value than the energy and minerals we export to our overseas customers.
Ian Fraser | 04 November 2015

As several commentators mentioned the minerals/gas etc under the land belong to us all. The companies that extract it do not own it, they operate under a form of licence. Why and how do they acquire the special privilege of over-riding the rights and wishes of land-holders and the public? How and why are they granted the right to reap an absurd level of profit by digging up and selling that which is not theirs? This country's mining laws must be changed, to reflect the fact that we all have a claim on this buried treasure. And Eugene, you suggest "the nuns should have something better to do." Is not comforting the family of a man who has tragically died, or endeavouring to protect the earth God gave us, suitable work for a nun? What would you have them doing?
Vin Victory | 04 November 2015

Eugene, the fact you mentioned this issue "need to be investigated" astounds me, because normally the investigations are carried out BEFORE these new mining methods are approved. And even the minister for rural health Fiona Nash admitted on Q&A 2 weeks ago that the research still hasn't been done to prove that CSG is safe. - but then passed it off as a state government issue. I can see that rationale behind just barging through, making the profits, and maybe worrying about the consequences later - perhaps making some sort of token apology 30, 50 or 100 years down the track when all the profits AND evidence is in.
AURELIUS | 06 November 2015

When our Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull spoke following the election I cannot recall the number of times he mentioned the economy. When will business leaders realise that we do not live in an economy but a society. When we destroy our world what use will the economy be to us then. Sadly George Bender's life is only one of a number of people whose lives are being and will be lost while we disrespect the world we inherited.
Claire Collins | 13 July 2016


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