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Why are so many people showing up at the Bentley Blockade?

Protestors-James-Wills-200The Bentley Blockade is set to become one of the biggest non-violent direct actions in the Australian environment movement. The anti gas mining campaign is spreading across social media with the words ‘I showed up, will you show up?’ and thousands of people are responding. Julie-Ann Henninger investigates why this campaign has attracted such diverse support and asks a range of 'protectors' why they are showing up.

14 May 2014

Over 4,500 people are on alert, ready to head to Bentley when the call goes out. According to Ian Gaillard, spokesperson for Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, the list is growing all the time. Bentley, a farming community in Northern New South Wales, has become the site of a stand-off between the petroleum exploration and production company, Metgasco, and those who are gathering as ‘protectors’, to prevent exploratory drilling for gas.

Gaillard says that while Metgasco have an access agreement with one property owner who lives elsewhere, those who live on the neighbouring farms oppose the drilling.

A camp for hundreds of protectors is now hosted on an adjacent property, with the owner's permission and support. Three gates to the proposed drill site have been blockaded, and rostered vigils are maintained at all times. In early April when an alert was sent out Gaillard estimates 3,000 people showed up and the alert list is now approaching 5,000.  

According to Jennie Dell from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, extensive surveys and polls conducted over the past three years show that the majority of locals are opposed to gasfield industrialisation. 

With a massive police presence, and the arrival of the drill rig, expected from 19 May, Dell says there are many non-violent direct action training sessions being held at the camp in preparation.

As photos and vidWater-sign-Julie-Ann-200eos with the words ‘I showed up, will you show up?’ circulate social media, many people can be seen holding signs with the phrase from international musicians to local mayors.

In early May, Gaillard confirmed there was “a big crew of farmers and nannas locking on up the top”. This protest has spurred more than just the expected activists into action, but why?

“People just don't want this industry in the Northern Rivers or other areas of the state,” says Gaillard. “It’s a danger to our land and water, to our grandchildren, to the children's children.”  

The large numbers, and diversity of protectors, are signs that the government is failing to listen to the community. Poet and musician Luka Lesson says: “I showed up because the Australian government is not looking after the people or country.”

Local mother and writer, Hellena Post, agrees. “Even if they don't see themselves as 'activists', nearly everyone from mainstream to fringe has had practical examples in their lives of an unfair system. And we're all getting the point that the buck stops with us, and we have to become the ones we were waiting for, and step up to the plate.

“There’s no time left to wait for somebody else to lead the show. Our whole system revolves around our fears and separation, and more and more people are realising from all walks of life that we’re far more connected than we've ever realised.”

The community strength and positivity of the campaign are definite draw cards for the blockade. “The Bentley Blockade is an organised, peaceful, respectful and well-informed gathering,’ says Lesson, praising the guidelines and practices in place.

“I think a diverse range of supporters have felt welcomed and strong in this movement because of the focus on positivity and community strength. The Blockade is not fighting against, it is standing for: there’s a seemingly small but extremely important difference.”

From her first visit, local educator Jodie Minton was also struck by the order, committed spirit, camaraderie, understanding, knowledge and care emanating from the place and the people there.  “From that moment I was hooked, and have found myself getting increasingly involved in the campaign,” she says.

Award-winning storyteller Jenni Cargill-Strong is equally impressed. Even as a busy mother juggling work and family commitments, she still manages to leave her house at 4am to greet the dawn at Bentley.

“The atmosphere is so sweet – like standing under a waterfall. It’s energising and uplifting – standing shoulder to shoulder with friendly strangers, young and old, Greens and National party life members, pagans and church ministers – all united by our love for the precious life-giving water, land and air and our heartfelt wish to be protectors, stewards, guardians.”

Theo Jongen, father of four and grandfather of three, joined all of his children and grandchildren in showing up as protectors.

Protest-Julie-Ann-250“I went to Bentley to keep the Northern Rivers gasfield free,” he explains. “We moved here because it was mostly clean and green – a good environment to raise children in and to grow old in, and we won't let corporations take that away without resistance. Word is out what the fracking industry's about, the water and air pollution, the number of wells needed to make it financially viable, what that would do to the landscape, and what effect that would have on house and land values and future development options; hence the broad spectrum of people present.”

Jongen also credits the location as a reason for the large and diverse turnout, saying the region has an informed population, not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

The Bentley Blockade has been visited by a number of mayors from surrounding council areas showing their support. Among them is Lismore Mayor, Jenny Dowell, whose council area is extremely close to the proposed drilling site. She shared her views on why people are showing up to Bentley:

“This issue of gas exploration unites everyone concerned about the landscape, farmers’ livelihood, the environment and our community well-being. The diversity of radical anti-fossil fuel campaigners, conservative farmers and everyone in between on the political spectrum doesn’t surprise me. There are so many reasons to oppose this industry, so each protector may have a different motivation but they share the same goal – a gasfield-free Northern Rivers.”

For more information on the Bentley Blockade visit the campaign website.

Images from top: James Wills (top image); Julie-Ann Henninger

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