Conflict between industrial development and conservation has long been a battlefield between environmentalists, big business and big government. But the escalating ”war” against activists is a real threat to democracy and legitimate issue debate.
In Australia the Government is angry that opponents of the $16 billion Carmichael coal mine in Queensland, to be built by the Indian company Adani, persuaded the Federal Court to overturn the approval. Activists successfully argued the government had given insufficient attention to the mine’s impact on the vulnerable yakka skink and ornamental snake.
Attorney-General George Brandis responded by declaring that Federal environmental laws should be reworked to prevent green groups “gaming the system” and sabotaging vital economic projects. To limit those with legal standing to appeal against decisions. He warned that existing rules provide a “red carpet for vigilante litigation” and railed against what he called “lawfare.” The courts, he said, should not be used as a forum for vigilante litigation by people “who have no legitimate interest other than to prosecute a political vendetta against development and bring massive developments to a standstill.”
Changing the law to inhibit issue debate is a dangerous path. And anyway, the Australian Government seems to have a short memory about using threatened species to block development. In one of the country’s most notorious cases, in 2006, the Federal Minister blocked a 52-turbine windfarm at Bald Hills, in politically sensitive rural Victoria, because it supposedly threatened the critically endangered orange-bellied parrot. A few months later the Minister was forced to backflip and allow the proposal, when it became clear that his own department advised there was no danger to the birds, and that the theoretical risk to the orange-bellied parrot from the windfarm was calculated at about one bird killed every one thousand years. No talk then of “vigilante litigation.”
Yet when it comes to the anti-coalmining issue in Australia, action against activists is almost benevolent compared with what is happening at the other end of the coal supply chain – in India. There the Government has reportedly directed an implacable campaign against Greenpeace India, which is leading the fight against new coal mines and new coal-fired power stations. A worrying article in The Guardian last month, headlined “India’s War on Greenpeace,” details at length the government’s actions against the organisation, including freezing its foreign fund bank accounts; preventing a local campaigner leaving the country for meetings with MPs in London; turning away British and Australian campaigners who landed with valid visas; and repeated surprise audits of the Greenpeace accounts.
Predictably, the Indian Government accuses Greenpeace of standing in the way of industrial development in the national interest, echoing the same arguments used by other governments around the world. But harassment, reactive regulation and heavy handed appeals to nationalism are not the way to deal with complex issues. Be it in India or Australia or elsewhere, the coal mining issue is a very important topic, and it needs to be resolved on the basis of facts, not politics and emotion on either side.