How much is our future worth?

May 23, 2011

Last Friday I had the enormous privilege of hearing Ingrid Betancourt in conversation with Greens Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon in NSW Parliament House. I first heard Ingrid in April 2001 at the Global Greens conference, a gathering of more than 700 Greens from around the world. Her accounts of politics in Columbia, where she was a Green presidential candidate, were a revelation and inspiration to all who heard her. Ten months later and before the election she was kidnapped by the FARC (Columbian Revolutionary Armed Forces-Peoples’ Army) rebels and remained a hostage in the Columbian jungle for six and a half years.

Ingrid has told the story of her incarceration and the events leading up to it in her book Even silence has an end, but just the short time she had last week was enough to move many of us to tears. She began by saying that there is no hope for Columbia until the people recognise that change has to come from them, and while ever they continue to accept corruption as part of life, it will remain so. Although some of the circumstances in that country are clearly very different to those in Australia, there are some obvious parallels.

Ingrid explains in her book that the FARC was formed initially as a result of the violent civil war in the 1940s between the conservative party and the liberal party; the peasants grouped to protect themselves from that violence and to stop their land being confiscated by conservative or liberal landlords. Later the movement evolved from being a rural, defensive organisation to a Communist, Stalinist guerilla group with a military hierarchy carrying out indiscriminate abductions. Not surprisingly, the FARC saw all politicians as the same, even though Oxigeno Verde, the Green Party, was markedly different. “It brought together a collection of passionate independent citizens who were fighting against years of political and military corruption crippling Columbia… (and who put) forward an alternative ecological and pacifist platform (based on) social reform.” But never mind that the Green Party was a breath of fresh air; the FARC was itself involved in the illegal drug trade that saw the take-over of peasant land for drug production.

Here in Australia, the governments we elect have been willing to prioritise mining over all other activities. Community upheaval has been disregarded. Corporations have been granted heavily subsidised water extraction rights. Mining activities have caused threats to local and regional water quality and supplies, endangered species and ecosystems, not to mention dangers to the health and well-being of humans. On top of all that, our ongoing love affair with coal and refusal to substantially move to renewables have ensured unacceptable levels of greenhouse gas emissions with little chance of change while there is an Federal Opposition leader, supported by the populist media, whose mission is to incite revolution against such change in the wider community.

I returned home from hearing Ingrid speak to find an appeal letter from the Nature Conservation Council to help its campaign to secure a healthier, safer future for NSW. It revealed that “more than 55 million hectares across NSW is already covered by licences and applications for mining and gas exploration and development. This (represents)… more than 70 percent of our state, including our best agricultural land, and many areas of high conservation value.”

That same night, ABC news reported that the NSW Government had announced a sixty day moratorium on all coal, coal seam gas and petroleum exploration. Subsequent transitional arrangements will require exploration licence applications to be exhibited for public comment for the first time ever and extraction licences will require agricultural impact statements. This is clearly a response to community anxiety and the conflicts that have arisen as a result of the free rein that mining corporations have had to date, and is a step in the right direction by the new government. It’s a pity it doesn’t extend to all mining, including gold.

At the meet-the-candidates event in Queanbeyan in the last throes of the 2011 NSW Election campaign, the then member for Monaro said he supported the Majors Creek goldmine because it would create 80 jobs, there would be conditions that did not allow water quality to be affected and in any case, we all needed gold. The Greens candidate pointed to all the gold being held in bank vaults, an observation reinforced on almost daily by gold market media reports; the April 23-24 edition of the Weekend Australian for example, in an article titled World bitten by the gold bug, stated that “as at the end of March, central banks around the world held 27,219.8 tonnes of gold, or 11.3% of their total reserve holdings, according to the World Gold Council.”

Gold is apparently an essential element in the production of mobile phones and other electronic goods; I would query the necessity of a 24-carat gold facial in the beauty salon of the ocean liner Celebrity Eclipse however (see the May 21-22 Weekend Australian’s Travel section), but either way perhaps we would be better served recovering this resource from obsolete and discarded devices, thus creating regional, long-term industries employing local people rather than imported specialists, and avoiding situations that will be beyond our control like contamination resulting from tailings dams spills.

We are at a crossroads which requires us to question our values and ask ourselves what is really important in life. One path is business as usual, that is, consumption and growth propped up by the mantra of jobs, and the acquisition of material wealth, leading to an ever-increasing gap between rich and poor; centralised decision-making unduly influenced by big business; unlimited extraction of animal, vegetable and mineral resources through activities that continue to divide communities, pump greenhouse and other pollution into the atmosphere and extract large amounts of water from rivers and aquifers. Another path leads to the creation and maintenance of healthy, cohesive, innovative communities who are able to decide their own destiny and who recognise the importance of meaningful, benign and productive work which contributes to the health and ongoing viability of their local environments and allows everyone to reach their full potential.

Governments may follow our lead, but first we have to show we care. The choice is ours.

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