Political Extraction: Environmental Activists Fined Almost Seven Times More Than Miners

Thirteen environmental activists protesting against the Adani group’s Carmichael coal mine in North Queensland, Australia, have been fined a total of $80 000. In January, the protestors chained themselves to coal-loading equipment in an attempt to disrupt the operations of Australia’s largest mine. The Frontline Action on Coal (FLAC) group protestors were charged with “trespassing, contravening direction and intentionally” and “recklessly interfering with port operations” and received fines of up to $8 000 each. By contrast, the Adani group was fined $12 000 by the Queensland Environmental Department after discharging eight times the permitted level of coal sediment onto wetlands last March.

According to the Police prosecutor Hannah Bear,  Aurizon estimated that more than $10 000 was lost due to the incident, complaining that the disruption of the protests detained local emergency services from the Bowen community’s needs. Similarly, according to Federal MP and Adani supporter, George Christensen told the activists “you should stop breaking the law and harming local workers, and you’ll have to answer to the court today on what you are doing”. However, protestor Liisa Rusanen stated, “When a billionaire gets a relatively meager fine for environmental destruction, yet peaceful protestors cop $80 000 in fines, we have to ask how short-term corporate profits can really be valued over ecosystems and a safe climate”. This sentiment was echoed by FLAC spokeswoman, Tully Doole: “Whilst Adani has mega bucks and lawyers to challenge their minuscule fine for polluting our environment, these working people have children to feed, health costs and school fees to pay”.

The $8000 fines handed down by Magistrate Simon Young are believed to be unprecedented for first-time offenders, bringing the commensurability of the fines with their recipients and their alleged crimes into question. This case also constitutes the first known case where activists have been charged with “intentionally or recklessly interfering with a port’s operation”. The group of charged activists is comprised of students, single parents and others who have voiced their inability to meet the hefty fines and is appealing to the public for donations. Consequently, many of the protestors represented themselves at Bowen Magistrates court on Tuesday, March 13.

Meanwhile, the Adani group has voiced its resentment toward the charges and intends to challenge them in court “on principle”. As Gautam Adani funded the $15 billion Carmichael mine project from his personal fortune, the $12 000 fine is seemingly negligible relative to the mining conglomerate’s balance sheet. Of greater concern is the fact that fines and legislative action have previously had little impact in deterring the Adani group from repeated violations of environmental law, including illegal dredging, pollution, and bribery.

Even if the Australian government maintains its tolerant stance toward the Adani group, it is imperative that the rights of peaceful protestors be upheld. While the actions of FLAC protestors may be politically inconvenient, they are aligned with almost 80% of popular opinion in opposing the mine, which is estimated to produce annual emissions equivalent to those of Malaysia or Austria. As one of the earliest countries to suffer from the distinct impacts of global warming, Australia has historically been quite receptive to the actions and opinions of ‘green power’ groups in legislating environmental reforms. However, the lack of public consultation regarding the Carmichael mine project and the disproportionate fines handed down to peaceful protestors highlights the comprehensively extractive nature of Australia’s mining and resources policy.