Activists fight to farm food not coal

Sacrificing fertile farmland to mine lignite coal is “100 per cent stupidity”, an Australian farmer turn activist told an anti-coal mining festival in New Zealand.

The second annual Keep Coal in the Hole festival was held on the weekend in the township of Gore and saw environmentalists and locals unite to oppose the NZ government-owned Solid Energy’s plans to mine lignite coal in the area.

Solid Energy says there are 3 billion tonnes of lignite available in the NZ coalfields of Waimumu, Croydon and Mataura.

Lignite is the lowest quality coal, halfway between peat and coal and is usually converted into briquettes, fertilizer, syngas and diesel.

Speaking to about 150 festival goers was Queensland farmer Rob McCreath.

McCreath successfully led a community group in a five-year battle against a coal mine, stopping a coal-to-liquid plant planned for prime agricultural land near his town in Queensland.

He thought the Southland farmland was beautiful and said it was "hard to imagine a more productive farming area", stuff.co.nz reported.

"In Australia we are peppered with New Zealand's 100 per cent Pure adverts," McCreath said.

"It's disgraceful that you have a government-owned company and they're allowing it to dig up this beautiful farmland. That's 100 per cent stupidity."

Coal Action Network spokesman Tim Jones said New Zealand residents need to learn from McCreath's Australian example and safeguard prime food-producing farmland.

"We face the very same threat here with the Southland lignite proposals still in Solid Energy's sights," he said.

In an act of symbolic protest, festival organisers dropped off a basket of locally-grown vegetables and mothballs to the lignite briquetting pilot plant near Mataura, spokeswoman Rosemary Penwarden said.

"We've spent $29 million of taxpayers' money on this lignite project already – and any more money spent would be a waste," she said.

Penwarden referenced the Berl economic report for Southland, released just six months ago, which stated the region should strive for a low-carbon future for the best result.

Solid Energy spokesman Bryn Somerville said the perspectives of the Coal Action Network were in opposition to the coalminer’s. The miner believes lignite could be used to lower New Zealand's dependence on imported diesel and fertilizer, and provide an affordable and reliable energy source.

The company’s chief executive Don Elder has in the past said lignite conversion could reduce the $5 billion NZ spends each year on buying diesel and fertilizer from overseas.

During the festival a public meeting was held to discuss the effects of coal on New Zealand’s Southland economy.

Just sixty people attended the meeting, resulting in organisers describing the poor community turnout as disappointing.

The forum entitled Shaping our Future – We have Options was also organised by the activist group Coal Action Network.

The groups Murihiki spokesman Dave Kennedy said that while some attendees were local community members most were activists who were also in the area for the Keep Coal in the Hole festival.

"I think perhaps people think the threat is not as great as it was," he said.

Southland's economy was a key point to be discussed, which Kennedy thought would have attracted more people.

"Given the recent job losses at the freezing works and Tiwai smelter I would have expected to see more interest," Kennedy said.

This year would be pivotal for the environment and the economy, he said.

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