Farming in South Australia: Farmers reveal the stress of fighting mining exploration
Knock, knock, knock.
It’s the sound some South Australian farmers are absolutely terrified of hearing — because the consequences of which can sometimes result in a life on the land left in limbo.
“Once a mining company knocks on the door wanting access to your property, farm life and the farming business suddenly changes forever,” says Bronte Gregurke.
“From that point on, the landowners’ stress and anxiety begins and in some cases never really ends,” he says.
Bronte has been an Eyre Peninsula sheep and grain farmer for 50 years and is chair of the Stop Invasive Mining Group.
He’s been witnessing the damaging effects of mineral exploration on the health and wellbeing of farmers and their families across the state for several years now.
“It’s visible — the anxiety and stress is everywhere,” he says. “It’s not just the parents that are affected, the children are too.
“One family has told me that their children were not sleeping at night because they were scared of the family farm being sold.
“Many-a-time I’ve seen strong landowners in tears as they struggle to deal with the threat to their land.”
So concerned by the growing number of affected landowners that in 2014 Bronte sought help from locals across Eyre Peninsula to begin a support group.
The Stop Invasive Mining Group is now servicing 370 members from Ceduna to the Flinders Ranges, Yorke Peninsula and beyond.
“The stress comes from not knowing,” Bronte says.
“You don’t know when it’s (mining) going to happen, how big the project is going to be, what it’s going to do to your land.
“And when the mining company with a mineral lease does decide to come along you can’t get away from it. How can you sell your property? No one wants to live on land with a mineral lease. You’re stuck.
“Nearby farmers and their properties are badly affected as well.”
Add to this the significant mining industry, government and, at times, community pressure placed on landowners to move aside for promised local and statewide wealth and job growth and it can sometimes end up being too much.
“There are people really hurting out there,” Bronte says.
Recurrent insomnia, nausea, weight loss, breathlessness, high blood pressure, panic attacks, anxiety and depression — sometimes requiring medication — are some of the health problems relayed first-hand to the Sunday Mail by SA landowners affected by mining interests.
Mental health: How to talk about it with someone who needs help
“It’s been incredibly stressful,” Jackie Harrop from Yorke Peninsula says.
She and her husband, a fifth-generation farmer, were thrown headfirst into a steep learning curve after an exploration company came looking for copper on their family farm near Paskeville four years ago.
“I’m spending hours a day on computers trying to get information or find information that is relevant to us,” says the bowel cancer survivor,” she says.
I’ve found the mining exploration and court process to be more stressful than the cancer diagnosis.
“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you have a doctor, oncology specialists, and nurses who guide you through and help you, but with this, you’re on your own — there’s nobody to help you … or tell you what you can expect to face.”
Despite the Harrops’ opposition, the Environment Resources and Development (ERD) Court granted an exploration company the right to undertake a drilling program on their land in 2016.
Mrs Harrop says the exploration company then indicated the copper deposit was not significant enough to warrant mining. But, she says the company suggested it could return if copper prices went up.
She says tens of thousands of dollars have since been spent on legal fees in a bid to gain court-awarded compensation and repair for damage caused during the exploration process.
“Every night when you go to bed, that’s all you think about,” she says.
I don’t sleep much anymore. You go to sleep thinking about mining and you wake up thinking about mining.
“Not a day goes past without us thinking about it or talking about it.
“I think the Mining Act has to be changed so that landowners are given more rights — it is our land and we should have the right to determine what happens on that land.
“And there needs to be more support for landowners who are going through the court system.”
Australia’s poster pin-up for landowners battling mining companies, Helen Bender, knows well the cost of exploration and mining to farmers’ health and peace of mind.
Her father George took his own life in 2015 after a 10-year fight over underground coal gasification, with coal-seam gas companies wanting to drill wells on his farm in Darling Downs, Queensland.
“One of the last things he said was ‘why am I wasting my time? No one is listening’,” Helen, 41, says.
“I think what really hurt him was that the everyday Australian wasn’t listening to him to help protect our land and our environment.”
Helen, now an accidental crusader, was in Adelaide this month lobbying the state government against underground coal gasification mining at Leigh Creek.
“Dad was one of the first to raise concerns over the environmental impacts occurring from underground coal gasification — it was about 8km away and his pigs were sick and dying and there was an awful odour.’”
Helen says George fought hard to be heard by the mining companies, governments, media and the community but felt completely isolated and stonewalled while facing a constant barrage of legal threats against his farm.
“It was like a form of torture,” she says.
“The extreme and constant pressure caused him to be hyper vigilant and he became obsessed with proving the industry was wrong and that caused psychological injury.
“His days were filled with handwriting letters; he would ring government departments; fill out complaint forms; follow up the complaints he made two to three years earlier; he would sit and wait for the minister to return his call and they rarely ever did.”
She says the mining industry changed her father — the implications of which continue to haunt her mother and four brothers, who still own the farm founded by her grandparents.
“The stress and anxiety just don’t go away,” she says.
“There is still a massive amount of uncertainty.
“People are still not listening; governments are not listening; farmers don’t have any rights and any rights they do have are being eroded.”
Uncertainty, say Eyre Peninsula GPs and UniSA research fellow and clinical psychologist Dr Kate Gunn, can contribute to deteriorating mental health.
“What makes farming a particularly stressful occupation is that so many things are beyond farmers’ control — that’s what our research is showing,” Dr Gunn says.
“I think anything that adds to their uncertainty, like the threat of mining on their land, could certainly add to their levels of stress.”
Dr Gunn, raised on an Eyre Peninsula wheat and sheep farm, has worked with farmers to develop an online resource, ifarmwell.com.au, to help them cope with the challenges of the land.
Cummins GP Gerard Quigley says mental health is always a serious concern among rural communities, including those under the added stress that exploration and mineral leases can bring.
“It does hang over your head and there is anxiety over not knowing what’s going to happen next,” Dr Quigley says.
The biggest problem, he says, is accessing mental health care in country SA with not enough GPs and mental health services available or no GPs in towns at all.
Tumby Bay GP Graham Fleming agrees, saying uncertainty breeds anxiety and could lead to depression.
While mining as a cause of stress and anxiety is not a particular issue at his practice at the moment, Dr Fleming says it can add to a raft of mental health challenges already faced by farmers.
South Australian Chamber of Mines and Energy chief executive officer Rebecca Knol says the resources sector understands that selling or renting land for mining can be stressful.
Ms Knol says that’s why it’s supporting improved land access arrangements and the modernisation of the 47-year-old Mining Act in SA.
She says the mining industry has funded support services for landowners through an independent, anonymous counselling service for communities impacted by the Central Eyre Iron Project.
“In the five years that the free phone service has been running, it has only received one phone call,” she says.
Landowners have told the Sunday Mail they felt unable to trust the service’s independence and felt a mining ombudsmen and law reform would better service their needs.
The mining industry and the state government argue that ownership of what lies beneath farmland’s topsoil belongs to the state and has deep historical context.
Ms Knol says it originates from the English Case of Mines in 1567, and a widely held belief that mineral deposits are a fortuitous “gift of nature” with net benefits belonging to the community rather than to whoever owns the land.
“We can’t control where the minerals lie but removing the right for South Australians to access them would put the state’s wealth in a private purse,” she says.
Energy and Mining Minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan says regional communities benefit enormously from the resources industry and most exploration and mining operations in SA coexist harmoniously with other land-uses.
“We need a system that supports land holders better when coexistence is complicated or difficult, rather than one which rules out mining and penalises the whole region,” he says.
“While freehold land ownership is an important right which must be respected and protected, so is the fact that the minerals below the land belong to all South Australians who benefit when they are mined.”
Eyre Peninsula, grain and sheep farmers “John and Jayne” (not their real names) say their lives have been turned upside down by exploration and the threat of mining. They are so fearful of being named that they only agreed to speak under pseudonyms and without naming the mining company involved.
A mineral lease was granted on their property recently to service a nearby iron ore mine yet to be built.
They heard the lease was granted on the local radio station.
They spend hours a day Googling terms, trawling through difficult legislation, lobbying politicians, communicating with lawyers in Adelaide and all the while running a large broadacre farm which has been in the family for three generations.
“We’re losing a day a week trying to keep abreast of the process and how that would affect us,” John says.
“We have boxes and boxes of correspondence, information and research,” Jayne says.
“We just want a fair go.”
Their expansion and succession plans have been put on hold, their dream home’s been scrapped and they live day-to-day not knowing when the mining company will secure the investors needed to get the project going.
They are constantly keeping an eye on the Australian Securities Exchange for company updates.
John says he can try and plan for changing weather conditions and fluctuating commodity prices, “but mining — you just can’t prepare for”.
And he says the realisation that the Mining Act allows this to happen has caused them the greatest pain.
“When you lose all hope — you lose everything,” he says. “We’re just burnt out, we’ve been shattered.”
“You’re trying to run a business that isn’t nine-to-five while raising a family; you live in the bush, so you need to travel a lot, that is our lifestyle, but if you add exploration and mining to all that, then life becomes very stressful,” Jayne says.
“Your kids ask you, ‘Mum and Dad, what’s wrong?’ and you want to be present, but you just can’t.
“For me, its stolen precious years away from my kids.
“It’s time I just can’t get back.”