Views of agricultural lands and vibrant, lively villages once created the landscape surrounding much of the Hunter in NSW. In a time when the Hunter Valley was known for more than mining, these villages were a haven for the tight-knit communities within them. Now, this landscape seems to becoming more and more barren as time goes on.
Residents of the historic villages surrounding Singleton have been fighting for forty odd years in a bid to protect their beloved communities. Now, there are only very few left to protect what remains.
Over the past few decades, the Hunter region has seen the rapid expansion of coal mining activities, in particular open cut mines.
The villages that ringed Singleton - Ravensworth, gone, Warkworth gone, Hebden gone – were once interconnected. Each small village connected to the other, either by vital road links or strong community ties.
Between Singleton and Muswellbrook there is now little land left that is not managed or owned by mining companies or the power stations and this sense of connection is slowly breaking down.
The advancement of mining operations has undoubtedly brought significant benefits to our region through employment, economic success, the development of regional centres and prosperity for the industry.
However, perhaps the cost of this prosperity was never fully considered, especially for the villages and residents who have been all but engulfed as a result.
Today, relics of what were once thriving communities loom in areas such as Camberwell, Hebden and Wallaby Scrub Road. Abandoned buildings are scattered throughout the few homes that remain inhabited, displaying a visual history of the gradual displacement of these communities.
But the abandoned buildings create more than just an unattractive scene – they pose significant safety risks, environmental impacts and psychological effects for the communities left behind.
These wastelands produce what University of Newcastle Senior lecturer in Anthropology, Dr Hedda Askland describes as ‘voids’, communities left hanging in limbo – unable to leave, yet undesirable to stay.
“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
According to Dr Askland, as the mining companies acquire land for their buffer zones or bio-diversity offsets there is a slow depopulation of the villages.
“This creates a negative spiral as more and more people are bought out, leaving the remaining residents feeling isolated and stranded. With each sale, living in the village becomes harder and harder,” she said.
“The villages are forgotten in all this development and their residents, unlike the residents of the regional towns like Singleton, are bearing all the negative impacts from mine development.”
Dr Askland’s solution to this problem is the adoption of far better planning regulations.
She wants to see a greater emphasis placed on social impact assessments during the approval process.
“Villages should be able to continue and thrive if we had the right planning process and just as importantly the mining companies were supportive of their survival,” she said.
Dr Askland, who is currently conducting a research project on villages and coal communities including Wollar and Bylong, said we had to develop a much greater understanding of how these communities work.
“Bush dances, sporting clubs, a shop, schools - these are the institutions that provide social cohesion and are vital for small communities,” she said.
“Once any one of these is lost, the community is badly damaged.
“We are emptying our rural communities and turning them into voids – with derelict buildings and decaying landscapes. How is that an equitable situation?
“Mining companies and their workers get all the benefits but the communities and their residents carry the heavy burden of their success.
“We need to value all our citizens, no matter where they work or live.”
There is currently an estimated 40,000 hectares of land controlled by mining companies as either buffer zones or bio-diversity offsets in the Upper Hunter.
Some companies use the land for agricultural purposes, as is the case with Glencore’s Colinta Holdings. Others lease their land and the homes on it. But some remain neglected and the homes uninhabited and decaying.
Concerns have been raised where mining companies have purchased productive agricultural land that unless properly managed, could become infertile and in worst case scenario home to feral pests and noxious weeds. This land deterioration is an economic loss for the local community and once again, results in displacement.
Better planning at state and government levels needs to be implemented to allow both mining companies and villages to co-exist. A solution to this displacement would mean that mining operations and villages could live in harmony, without either lessening the other.
Ultimately, these village communities can’t choose to leave their villages and for those who have fought to keep their homes and properties, it is heartbreaking when they are forced to sell out.
“It is heartbreaking – people are completely broken when they sell out after the fight,” Dr Askland said.
“They’re heartbroken because they leave what they have been fighting for.”