Economic Boon or Bust? It Depends on Who Owns the Land..

Sometimes, it is only just a unrealistic dream. You could be a farmer with large fields, growing vast quantities of grain to feed the world. Or, you could be an organic farmer with small, “organically” grown fruits and vegetables sold locally to merchants or in small town farmers’ markets. The global population needs vast quantity. Local communities have begun to seek higher quality, more nutritious and environmentally sustainable food.

The reality is that we are paying a huge premium to produce such large quantities of food through the use of pesticides and insecticides to ensure fields reach maturity and are looking for better ways to eat sensibly. Just having the choice is a luxury to only a few of the planet’s 7 billion inhabitants.

Now imagine that instead of food, your are producing wine from vineyards that have either been passed down in the family for generations or as a vocational opportunity over a more conventional occupation with a large company in a metropolitan area.

This is another story: Burdens of Extraction — The Growing Coal Mining Industry in Australia’s Hunter Valley Wine Region  – about how one emerging economic need can overwhelm the history or need for another. This appeared as a recent Circle of Blue article.

“The town of Muswellbrook, here in the fertile Hunter Valley in northeastern New South Wales, has always been a little rough around the edges. The overhangs of the two-block-long main street shade entrances to taverns and outfitters where sturdy boots and deep-brimmed hats line dusty shelves. Bars alternate between sports and karaoke on weeknights; locals down cold brews from taps that are generations old.”

Life in Muswellbrook has changed dramatically in the past ten years.

“The Hunter Valley farming region — which also boasts Australia’s premier equine industry and some of its best wine valleys — into a global hydrocarbon center that hosts 24 open-cut coal mines and the world’s most complex coal supply chain operation.”

Not that mining is always bad. But here are some of the obvious areas of impact that mining has brought to this region of Australia. I cannot say with certainty, but I would feel safe in guessing that similar impact is felt by any region experiencing the economic bounty of mineral mining.

“The presence of a single big mine, or even a few, gave the town a nice economic boost. But the genesis of the region over the last decade into a mining center has had disastrous economic effects on this town of 10,000 residents.

The expanding sprawl of coal mines throughout the valley has edged out many farmers and undercut the property values of others who want to move out of the region but are unable to sell their land adjacent to massive coal mines.

Strip mining has additional impacts below the surface. Keeping the mine dry requires draining any hydrology that runs through the excavation. This can drain aquifers in the surrounding area, sucking dry the water that nearby farmers rely on for irrigation.”

Details are given to the impact on traditional labor pools needed to harvest grapes in the vineyards. Those wages cannot compete with the money being offered to work in the mines. Numerous other community elements are being transformed. Housing prices have soared as have hotel/motel rates. This is an economic boon to some and a bust to others.

The town mayor made this comment about the area’s future should the mining boon begin to disappear:

“[The mayor] admitted that a transition away from coal will be painful, and the outcome of whether Muswellbrook will return to its roots as a farming community — or become a ghost town — is ambiguous.”

We have seen all to often that around the world when the competition between minerals and community begins, the community will find too many “good” justifications not too move forward. How can an economically dormant region argue with a top executive about the benefits he claims will be accrued from incoming operations?

“…when we are talking about investments in the billions of dollars, jobs in the thousands of people, and the future of the industry that is responsible for 17 percent of private investment in the state, caution and cool heads are required.”

Both the community leaders and corporate executives will advocate environmental sensitivity and caution when moving forward. Too many times we have seen these commitments collapse whenever an environmental misstep does occur – as often it will.

Again, it becomes clear that choice is often not an true option. In Muswellbrook,

“…mineral rights belong to the state — farmers only own the topsoil.”

Perhaps in the end, what really matters is not simply who owns the land but who owns the land AND the mineral rights far below the surface of the land!



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