Farmers on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula, harvesting an expected record wheat and barley crop this month, are intensifying a campaign to protect their region from mineral exploration.
In an unprecedented move, Grain Producers SA, representing 3000 growers who will reap a combined $2.2 billion harvest this year, has asked the government for an independent review of the Mining Act to ensure the interests of farmers are protected.
The act says cropping land is exempt from mineral exploration unless the farmer agrees to provide access or a court overrides that right. GPSA’s chief executive, Darren Arney, said the review’s focus on land access and court resolution may weaken farmers’ rights to refuse entry to explorers.
The timing of the review coincides with the busiest time of year for grain farmers, giving them little time to consider and respond to the discussion by the December deadline, a move Mr Arney believes shows government bias towards miners.
The State Development Department-led review, as both promoter and regulator of the mining industry, was like “playing a football game with umpires from only one team on the field”, he said.
“Independence cannot be guaranteed when the department is so close to the mining and approvals process and so far removed from primary production.”
Similar reviews to mining acts in Queensland and NSW had been done by independent arbiters, he said.
Next month neighbouring Paskeville farmers Neil Harrop and Brenton Drewett, who farm lentils, grain and sheep 130km north of Adelaide, go to court to challenge Marmota Energy over access to 200ha of their land to drill for copper.
Their lawyer, Tim Mellor, who has represented several farmers in challenges against miners, said few cases such as Harrop’s and Drewett’s reach court but their stand reflected a greater level of concern from farmers over prime agricultural land and environmental impacts from mining.
The project director of copper explorer Rex Minerals, Greg Hall, said relations between miners and farmers had deteriorated in the past 15 years, fuelled by the “creeping activism” of the Lock the Gate movement and despite miners’ better consultation with farmers ahead of projects.
“Thirty years ago, there was a much better relationship … now it’s almost intractable,’’ he said.
Brenton Davey, a fourth-generation wheat grower whose farm lies next to Rex Minerals’ tenement near Ardrossan, 150km northwest of Adelaide, said he had weathered seven years of uncertainty as Rex sought community and financial support for the $480 million copper project touted to employ 500 people.
He is worried about contamination of crops from any mine’s dust and the loss of prime, dry land soil and the intrusion of mineral explorers from their traditional tenements on pastoral lands.
He would prefer prime cropping land to be permanently exempt from exploration. “Fifteen years ago, no mining or exploration companies were coming on to our agricultural cropping land.
“It’s only the last 15 years we’ve had a real surge of trying to get access,’’ Mr Davy said.
“We’ve only got 4.3 per cent of dry land cropping available to the state. As the nation, I think we’ve only got about 4.5 per cent of total dry land in Australia that’s suitable for cropping so the pieces of land we’ve got we need to protect.
“By 2050 we have to feed another nine billion people, so for every acre I’m going to have to produce twice as much to be able to feed those people. We can’t have 0.01 per cent of this land destroyed because it’s going to impact on he task we have ahead of us.’’
South Australian Mineral Resources Minister Tom Koutsantonis said concerned farmers should make a submission to the review. He had full confidence it would “balance the viewpoints of the various stakeholders impacted by mining in South Australia’’.