It’s easy to forget that Melbourne, now regarded as a laid-back refuge for artists, intellectuals and activists, was once considered the commercial and financial capital of the southern hemisphere.
Australia’s first mining millionaires were Melbourne-based. Their history remains sewn into its urban fabric. The city’s broad boulevards, impressive banks, fine suburbs and colonial mansions were all built with wealth generated first by the gold rush of the 1850s, and later by base metal mining, from the 1880s onward. “The actual production does not take place in Victoria,” wrote visiting English author Richard Twopeny in 1883, “but it is in Melbourne that the money resulting from the productions of other [pre-Federation] colonies as well as of Victoria is turned over.”
At the same time, Melbourne was also scene to grave poverty. For a labour movement recovering from the worst of the 1890s depression, the lavish clubs and ornate buildings of Melbourne’s Collins Street – depicted in John Brack’s famous painting, Collins St., 5pm – stood in stark contrast to the slums of now-gentrified Collingwood or the primitive conditions of mining towns like Broken Hill.
There, locals lived in dusty corrugated shacks and makeshift tents, and struggled with horrific diseases like typhoid. “How fitting then,” observes historian Erik Eklund, “that the only words in John Brack’s iconic painting of Melbourne were ‘Bank of New South Wales’, for indeed much of the wealth of late nineteenth century Collins Street came from the far western NSW town of Broken Hill.”
While Collins Street may have changed since the turn of the 20th century, it remains home to some of Australia’s most notorious mining giants, many of whom will be front and center at this year’s annual International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC). IMARC is Australia’s largest mining event; it is slated to bring together around 7 000 industry heavyweights from over a hundred countries.
A PR hoax of monumental proportions, IMARC is a greenwashing operation for some of the world’s most reckless companies, designed to convince investors and the public that they are socially responsible corporate citizens who take their obligations to the environment and local communities very seriously. In short, IMARC is speed-dating for organised crime; it aims to foster partnerships between policy makers, mining giants and billionaires. This will, in turn, make it easier for corporations to dispossess local communities, expropriate resources, injure workers and accumulate superprofits without consequence. Although only a four-day event, the impact of IMARC will reverberate not just throughout Australia but worldwide.
Speed dating for environmental vandals
Which companies might the prospective miner (or blockader) expect to meet at IMARC?
First, there is BHP. Founded in Broken Hill in 1885 and now located at number 171 Collins Street, BHP is Australia’s largest diversified mining company. It is a significant producer of fossil fuels: it mines coal in Australia and Colombia, and produces petroleum in Algeria, Australia, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom and the United States. BHP also produces uranium, iron ore, copper and nickel in various other countries.
Recently, the company was responsible for the resurgence of pneumoconiosis or “black lung” among a new generation of miners. Black lung is a debilitating, incurable and easily preventable disease thought to have been eradicated from the Australian mining industry over 60 years ago. After victims and their supporters made the 2 000km journey south from Queensland’s Bowen Basin to Collins Street earlier this year, senior executives of the multibillion-dollar empire refused to meet with them to discuss a compensation levy.
Further afield, in the Colombian province of La Guajira, BHP’s joint venture operates one of the largest open-cut coal mines on Earth. As Melbourne’s Rainforest Action Group notes, “Despite Cerrejón exporting 500 million tonnes of coal since 1976, La Guajira remains one of Colombia’s poorest states with 67% of people living in poverty.” Deaths from malnutrition among displaced Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities are common, and the frequent protests organised by locals are met with heavy repression, threats of violence and even murder.
A little further down Collins Street, at number 360, is the site of the historic “Collins House”. Though Brack did not compose his iconic painting en plein air, the edifice to the viewer’s right of the Bank of New South Wales closely resembles Collins House. It was in this building’s graceful archways and Sicilian marble corridors that Brack spent his afternoons sketching, while waiting for a close friend to knock off work.
Erected in 1911, number 360 Collins Street was home to Melbourne’s first mining empire. Bankers, solicitors, pastoralists and surveyors congregated in its meeting rooms, forming syndicates and joint stock companies. Headed by key businessmen such as Colin Fraser, WL Baillieu and WS Robinson (names which are still associated with Victorian Liberal Party royalty), the “Collins House Group” was a confederation of separate companies held together by close family ties and interlocking commercial interests. While its genesis was in Broken Hill, the empire soon monopolised every major mining and industrial site on the continent.
Collins House was demolished in 1974. However, the sleek skyscraper in its place is now aptly inhabited by Australia’s most infamous multinational mining group, Rio Tinto.
Rio Tinto has recently adorned itself with a new image of “corporate social responsibility”. However, we should not allow its blood-soaked history to be forgotten. The company’s former director, Sir Auckland Geddes, praised the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco for executing socialist, anarchist and communist miners in areas conquered during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. In the lead-up to World War II, Rio Tinto also maintained an alliance with Italy’s Benito Mussolini while supplying iron ore vital to Nazi Germany’s rearmament programme.
Later, they made a fortune extracting uranium in Namibia under the protection of the apartheid-era South African regime, while closer to home, Rio Tinto’s Panguna copper mine sparked a civil war on the Northern Solomon Island of Bougainville. Notwithstanding the incredible victory of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, which succeeded in shutting down the mine in 1989, it is estimated that 20 000 people were slaughtered in the conflict.
In Australia too, Rio Tinto has wrought havoc. Despite decades of resistance from the Mirrar Aboriginal people (the traditional custodians of Australia’s northernmost wetlands and escarpments), Rio Tinto still operates the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu National Park. Yet the Mirrar people have proven that Rio Tinto can be stopped.
Mirrar activists first made headlines in the late 1990s when they lead a high-profile and ultimately successful campaign against the Jabiluka uranium mine, which is also in Kakadu. Protesters in Melbourne – in solidarity with the Mirrar people’s direct-action activities in the country – repeatedly blockaded the corporate headquarters of North Limited, who were developing the mine, keeping their share prices nailed to the floor. Jabiluka remains an iconic struggle and major reference point for the activist alliance building the IMARC blockade.
Directly opposite Rio Tinto’s sparkling facade, in the very spot where Brack’s viewer stands gazing out at Collins Street’s corporate procession, are the offices of the Australian-Canadian mining firm OceanaGold.
OceanaGold recently sparked global outrage when it demanded that the government of El Salvador pay $250 million – almost twice what the impoverished country receives in international aid annually – in compensation for refusing to approve a proposed gold mine. El Salvador, a country where almost one-third of the population lives beneath the national poverty line, was forced to spend more than $12 million on legal defence.
In June of this year, OceanaGold’s Dipidio mine in the Nueva Vizcaya province of the Philippines was halted when indigenous farmers and local protesters constructed a people’s barricade outside the mine site, bringing operations to a standstill.
Local activists have called out OceanaGold’s environmental and humanitarian crimes, revealing that local residents, who have been subject to indigenous, labour and human rights’ violations, are unable to access clean water. Earlier this month, protesters in Melbourne gathered outside of OceanaGold’s offices at 357 Collins Street, to stand in solidarity with locals fighting against the reopening of the Dipidio mine. The Blockade IMARC alliance has received messages of international solidarity from Filipino activists in support of next week’s action.
October 29: Melbourne against IMARC
For a visitor strolling past Collins Street’s luxury outlets and commercial towers today, Richard Twopeny’s 1883 observation remains apposite: “The actual production does not take place in Victoria.” Yet, Melbourne is where the proceeds of the devastation – environmental and humanitarian – are “turned over”.
In early October, activists organising under the Extinction Rebellion umbrella gave many of Melbourne’s mining magnates a warning signal. However, the stakes will be raised on Tuesday 29 October. Organisers of the IMARC blockade hope that thousands of Melburnians will come together at Southbank’s Convention and Exhibition Centres to prevent these climate criminals hooking up with their sycophants.
This is about more than one corporate event. In the wake of Extinction Rebellion’s springtime “Week of Rebellion”, the Blockade IMARC alliance aims to cohere and crystallise a civil disobedience wing of the fledgling climate movement. This is how we can point a finger at the multinational mining giants and their imperialist state backers, who are most responsible for climate change and environmental destruction.
Thanks to Greta Thunberg and millions of protesters around the world, mainstream discussion of solutions to the climate crisis has shifted away from the importance of three-minute showers and reusable cups and towards the need for systemic change and disruptive mass action. For Melburnians, this means calling out the corporate criminals of Collins Street.
Melbourne has a proud history of actions like this. In 1999, mass protests in Seattle, known since as “The Battle of Seattle”, disrupted a World Trade Organization meeting. The following year, Melbournians followed suit, organising a picket against the World Economic Forum which met at the massive Crown Casino complex. The result was an extraordinary, thousands-strong mass blockade where unionists united with students and leftists to disrupt a congregation of global capitalism’s most powerful leaders. Now renowned as “s11”, the event was the Occupy Wall Street of the late 1990s.
The IMARC Blockade continues the tradition of this campaign, as well as others, such as the Mirrar people’s defeat of the Jabiluka uranium mine.
The “blockade kickoff” will take place on Monday 28 October, as IMARC attendees start to gather at the Convention and Exhibition Centres in South Bank. The mass blockade is planned to start on the first full day of the conference: Tuesday 29 October. As always, it is difficult to predict the force of the blockade, but win, lose or draw, it will not be business as usual for Melbourne’s mining giants.
This article was first published by Jacobin.