REFUGE (n). That which shelters or protects from danger or calamity; a sanctuary inaccessible to an enemy.
This is a story about a little place a long way away from the decision-makers in Brisbane and Canberra, a story about a tiny bird and a big, big man, and a story which asks: when is a refuge not a refuge?
Before ornithology, some stats. No matter how big you think Queensland’s mining boom is, the investment, size of the holes, flow-on effect, you aren’t even close. Right now, winding through the passages of the Great Barrier Reef are 1722 ships a year. That is forecast to become 10,150 by 2020 almost 200 a week, a coal-ship highway. (Word of advice: If you haven’t dived the reef, do it soon.)
The best thing about Queensland’s boom is that, sitting in Brisbane’s easy Saturday morning prosperity, urbanites enjoy its benefits without confronting the dirty work. Mining happens far away at some tiny spot we’ll never visit. Welcome to Alpha, in central Queensland, where one of the largest of dozens of mines planned is Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal “China First’’ thermal coal mine project in the Galilee Basin. Four underground mines, two surface mines, covering almost 700,000ha, exporting 40 million tonnes a year.
Smack bang in the way is the Bimblebox Nature Refuge, a 8000ha patch of drylands ecosystem (bimblebox.org). Now, you read the word “refuge’’ and thought, uh oh, sounds like a problem. Not in this state. Apparently, under Queensland law, wide-scale mining of nature refuges is allowed when it suits.
In May last year, 15 black-throated finches were spotted near a water trough at Bimblebox by sharp-eyed Maureen Cooper. Birdlife Australia says these finches are “as rare as hen’s teeth’‘. The extraordinary sighting of Poephila cincta cincta was confirmed by its Atlas of Birds Project. Yet, Bimblebox would be consumed by China First. Bye bye birdie, bye bye.
Waratah Coal managing director Nui Harris says it will buy offset land nearby. Clive Palmer is no stranger to controversy. The billionaire often bounces up in the headlines boasting he’s got plenty of money and how the Greens are a plot of the CIA. He once listed “litigation’’ as a hobby in his Who’s Who entry. All in all, powerful friend, tough enemy.
When bird friend Paola Cassoni, with others, set up the Bimblebox Nature Refuge and signed the land over in 2003, they believed it would be protected forever. On paper, a nature refuge is a legal agreement with the State Government.