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18 Opinion

Friends in need

Land shared by mining and agriculture interests is fertile for distortion and misinformation, yet the two industries can complement each other to a large extent – if the trust and transparency is there. By Tim Scholz

October 1987 and I am standing in a thin, droughted wheat crop at Condobolin NSW, being interviewed by a reporter about my new job assisting farmers at risk. At risk of losing their farms because of drought and interest rates of more than 20 percent, farmers whose unserviced debt is doubling every 3.1 years. Fast forward 28 years and I am again having conversations with farmers. This time with families facing intrusion from an industry they haven’t experienced and for the most part, don’t understand… mining. The late 1980s saw an exodus from agriculture that has continued to this day. As time moved on and better times returned, those family farm businesses whose children sought a wider world than rural life were able to take the opportunity and sell. Small communities downsized and are still shrinking today, along with local services, sporting teams, churches and other social networks that characterise rural Australia.

know the emotional hook of farmers being pressured by ‘all powerful conglomerates’ makes for powerful and potentially policy changing headlines. At the same time, it is very convenient to forget that everything we do and have outside of the food and fibres we grow, comes from the unfashionable process of mining parts of our planet and converting them into the heat, power, plastics, steels and liquids that make our lives comfortable and enjoyable. Can mining industries ever really understand the psyche of agricultural communities and vice versa? Can trust replace distrust or at least reach an uneasy but workable equilibrium? It is part of being human to forget what we choose to and turn a blind eye to what we do not want to see. So when unavoidable issues confront us and closing our eyes does not remove the problem, we react.

It is no wonder communities Australia wide, already reeling from population loss and facing a future of increasing technology (such as driverless tractors) that will continue this pattern, fear change.

‘Not in my backyard’ is the basic human condition that if we are honest, we all subscribe to. When it becomes ‘our patch’, trust, certainty, loyalty and credibility give way to the opposites very quickly.

When that change is in the form of new industries – particularly mining, that seems to attack the remaining fabric of rural community – distrust, unease and uncertainty become powerful drivers of community response.

History, both past and present, is littered with examples of mining companies so often using the same tools to both dig a hole and engage a community – bulldozers and blasting. Companies that promise much, but leave without a second glance. Companies that talk up the opportunity, but shy away from the downtimes. Companies that don’t communicate their own long term and sometimes short term strategies, leaving in many cases individual and family dreams shattered by commitments made to a false or flawed promise.

There is something innately basic and fundamental to the soul around the production of the food that keeps us all alive. Certainly, there are plenty of people who feel mining is pure exploitation while food production is somehow sacred. The philosophically opposed groups in our society

ISSUE 01 RESOURCING SA Spring 2015

The lessons of my past hold true today. Information, openness and transparency were the tools people needed to provide the balance that led to better choices and renewed hope for the future. When people become empowered, they can stop feeling and acting like victims. Today the mining/agriculture space is fertile ground for distortion and misinformation. Any mining company that wants to become an integral part of the community it operates in must do what it says and say what it does! That means not over promising. That means explaining the inherent risks of commodity cycles and unforeseen stock market and financial crisis that change priority and process. That means being open about the vagaries of company ownership, management changes and the sometimes brutal nature of an industry that survives only by the profit and promise it produces. After all, it is not so different to agriculture. Sure, agricultural communities may be lulled by the generally slower pace of change, but history reveals the true nature of its industry. Withering drought, disastrous floods, commodity slumps and disease are just some of the challenges, while the onslaught of technology and changes in world trade flow through to regional job and population losses. Both agriculture and mining produce the food, fibre and tools we all use. Both need to provide a living to the people and companies that do the work. Both provide significant benefits to the wider community. And in some cases, both occupy the same space and need to complement each other where they can.

Resourcing SA - Spring 2015  

This is the launch issue of Resourcing SA, a magazine focused on the people, communities and stories surrounding South Australia's dynamic m...

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