NEWCASTLE, Australia —Business at the world’s largest coal-exporting port was slowed to a snail’s pace on Friday by a group of Pacific Islanders and environmentalists who blocked the shipping channel with a flotilla of traditional canoes and orange kayaks.
The blockade was the latest protest organized by the Pacific Island Climate Warriors, who are raising awareness about the coal industry’s role in hastening climate change, the effects of which are already being felt on the South Pacific islands.
“The fish that used to be in the areas we used to fish in are no longer there,” climate warrior George Nacewa, of Fiji, told Fusion. “Flooding [has caused] the waters to be muddy and full of silt.”
Nacewa says climate change on the island has changed the way people live and the crops they can grow. He says the coral reefs are being killed and his home village of Sigatoka is “earmarked for relocation due to flash floods,” he said.
Nacewa was joined by representatives from 12 Pacific Islands, including Papua New Guinea, The Solomon Islands, Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, Tuvala, and The Federated States of Micronesia. The action was organized by 350 Pacific, a branch of the global climate change movement, 350.org.
The scene on the beach was part music festival, part tropical beach party, and part political rally. Islanders sold coconut water, alternative energy aficionados peddled miniature solar cells, and activists from Australia’s Greens party were politicking ahead of next week’s local election. Live music entertained the crowds during the long waits between ships approaching the blockade.
A crowd of several hundred peopled remained on the beach throughout the day, with the usual mix of counter-culture veterans, recent graduates of the Occupy movement, and a handful of supporters representing the Uniting Church and the Quakers.
A local Australian Aboriginal elder, Phyllis Darcy, opened the day with a traditional welcome, telling the crowd, “We are part of the land, we are its guardians, our story time is ever present in the land and the waters.”
Only four ships passed through the port all day — two coal ships and two container ships. Protest organizers claim 12 ships were scheduled to leave the port on Friday. No arrests were made, but a police reported that two protesters “were detained and taken off the water after they came within a meter of a tug ship."
Paul Chamberlain, a spokesperson for Port Waratah Coal Services, the company responsible for loading the coal ships, said “people have a right to protest, as long as they make sure they do so in a safe and legal way that doesn’t disrupt and interfere with others”.
The Port of Newcastle would not confirm whether protesters had managed to block eight scheduled ships from leaving port. “Shipping movements continued throughout the day, based on safety parameters approved by the Port Authority of New South Wales Harbour Master,” a spokesperson from the port authority told Fusion.
Last Monday, the warriors visited Whitehaven Coal’s Maules Creek project site, the largest coal mine under construction in Australia. Once completed and operating at full capacity, Maules Creek is expected to employ some 450 people.
Representatives of the coal industry declined to comment on the protests.
The coal industry has divided the Australian public. At the recent opening of the Queensland coal mine, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said “coal is good for humanity.” Australian author Richard Flanagan, winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction, replied to that comment in a BBC interview earlier this week, saying he is “ashamed to be Australian” given the country's current environmental record.
As for the Pacific Island Climate Warriors, Nacewa says Friday’s harbor blockade was “just a baby step.”
He added, “We’re going to go back home and mobilize more people.”