George Thomas Bender was born on 12 June 1947, and spent his life as one of five generations of Benders who have, since 1907, farmed in the Chinchilla district. In an area renowned for its prime agricultural land, George was raised and educated in the knowledge and skills of farming from his family, which he in turn passed on to his own children.
With his wife Pam, George raised four sons and a daughter on the same property, and in the same house, in which he was raised. Three of those sons have continued farming on the family properties and other lands in the Chinchilla area.
Whether he was playing sport, coaching youngsters, judging at the local agricultural shows, or simply giving those in need some help and advice, George’s contribution to agriculture, the community and his family was part of what made him a well known and highly regarded pillar in the Western Downs area.
As a farmer, George’s commitment to sustainability and innovation saw him willingly assist agricultural research, by supporting cropping trials for various private and Government organisations on his land. The need to undertake and develop more sustainable and productive agricultural practices underscored significant changes and investments in his farming methods over his working life.
“Integrity” is the word most often associated with George, both before and after his death. In the way he farmed, the quality of his produce was never compromised, and nothing would be sold, sent to market or shared with others unless it was of the highest quality. The fact that he won local awards for his wheat, cotton and pigs are examples of this.
It was George’s commitment to “clean and green” produce and long term sustainable agriculture that caused him to carefully examine the claims of CSG companies when they arrived 10 years ago. George questioned the environmental claims of this industry and the right of CSG companies to impose on the lives and activities of the landholders in the Chinchilla and Hopeland areas. He refused to enter into compensation agreements with these companies, notwithstanding enormous pressure to do so. He advised others against the same, but unfortunately witnessed the impacts on the environment and lives of a number of his neighbours as fracking commenced, wells were constructed, pipelines and other infrastructure were built.
Over the last decade, George stood up to a number of big Gas companies, including QGC, Arrow and Origin. In George’s view, all had the same intent and agenda: their interest was in getting the gas and they didn’t really care about the lives of the farmers on whose land they would trample to access it.
Throughout Australia, eventhough you buy or own land, it is the Government who controls the right to minerals beneath the surface. However, once the Government sells the rights to large companies, often from overseas, to extract these minerals, neither the farmer nor the land owner has the right to prevent the impact to the surface of the land, and other vital environmental resources such as water and soil quality.
George stood for, quite simply, the right for a farmer to say “no”. George was a straight talker, often of few words, who, as described by one son, “told the truth, not the sugar coated bullshit”. He was willing to talk openly to anyone who was interested in really seeing what was happening as a result of the CSG industry. He was tenacious in contacting Government departments, company officials and in making himself available to the media, often at significant personal cost. It is fitting that a small amount of his work can still be viewed by the public online in media reports about the cause of Western Downs farmers. He pointed out, to those who had the privilege of his company, in simple and straightforward terms, that the companies stand to make large profits from the mining of these gas resources. In doing so, there are short-term booms but long term destruction to the land and water resources that are of much greater long term value than the profits dispensed to a few shareholders, or the votes courted by a few politicians.
There were many politicians, both at a state and federal level, who heard from George. He demanded from our politicians a higher standard. The litany of letters that were left unanswered and telephone calls not returned reflects the political inaction and unwillingness to look at the impacts of this industry by all except the likes of Glenn Lazarus and Larrisa Waters.
In a submission to the ‘Senate Inquiry to Investigate Certain Aspects of Queensland Government Administration related to Government Affairs’ in November last year, George stated:
“The government has provided the CSG Companies with all the power, leaving an individual farmer to protect himself against multinational companies. The decision whether or not to have CSG on our property should be a commercial decision; it should be the right of the farmer to choose what effects his business on a commercial basis. This situation the government has created leaves the process open for bullying, and intimidation and potential corruption.”
George, like many farmers of his generation, left school early to support his family working on the land. However, despite the lack of formal education, this did not prevent George spending many hours, night after night, studying the relevant legislation and correspondence from the companies he was standing up to.
This led, in the view of many, to George having a better understanding of the relevant law than many others, including company executives and lawyers. He called many to account, in the companies, Government and the community, for their lack of due process and honesty in claims about the CSG operations.
What became clear as regards the Environmental Authority issued in respect of the Origin tenement affecting George’s land, as well as others in the area, is that it was issued without the correct procedures being followed under the Environmental Protection Act. Critical “environmental values” information required to enable environmental impact assessments prior to approvals was never submitted. This pattern has enabled the companies to respond to criticisms by pleading a lack of available data in order to measure impacts, such lack being a result of misfeasance by those who had the responsibility to make sure that legislative procedures were followed.
Since 2005, George confronted and stood up to QGC, Arrow and most recently Origin in them seeking to construct a number of wells on one of his properties. It is from this land that George had over the years grown and harvested a number of award winning crops. The impact of CSG on neighbouring properties had caused his bores to run dry and bubble with noxious methane, something that was not caused by anything other than the mining activities in the area.
The threats most recently from Origin can be simply stated as follows: you agree to our terms or we enter a process that, should you resist, inevitably ends up in Court. In 2011, George raised concerns about the impacts of the UCG (Underground Coal Gasification) arising from the operations of Linc Energy in the Hopeland area. The response from Peter Bond, CEO and Managing Director of Linc Energy, was to deny all such claims and a direct threat to have George Bender declared “a vexatious complainant and/or commence legal action for damages for injurious falsehood”.
It is notable that the property on which George was raised and lived until his untimely death is now within an exclusion zone imposed by the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection as a result of investigations into Linc activities. These investigations form the basis of a criminal prosecution against Linc, now before the Courts, for causing serious environmental harm.
Notwithstanding the potential impacts of this on the farms and livelihoods of the many landowners in that area, a request on behalf of George Bender and other’s in the affected area to the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection for documents and information pertaining to this matter was denied.
George Bender, in his role to raise awareness and assist others affected by the CSG industries, questioned the independence and viability of the Gas-fields Commission and the commissioners. In that context, George considered it ironic that this publically funded body were not capable of properly fulfilling their publically mandated role.
Much has already been said about George Bender in the media since George took his own life last week. A local gasfields commissioner has sought to link George’s death to the issue of mental health and depression in rural areas.
Whilst George’s family recognise that this is an important issue that must continue to be raised and addressed, and something that touches many in the farming community, it must be emphatically stated that George did not suffer from depression or mental health issues. These issues, although important in their own right, cannot be allowed to detract from the real concern in this case, which is the effect of the CSG industry on the lives of farmers and the environment. It was a sudden and unexpected act that caused George to take his own life. His family is, and always has been, close and supportive.
Farming is a stressful occupation but what is not recognised is the additional and unrelenting burden that having to deal with the CSG industry has on the lives of those families affected. From the time the companies took an interest in George’s land, it is something that the Benders have lived with daily. It is a constant source of worry, concern and something that you cannot forget.
George saw the impact on families who entered into agreements with CSG companies. He saw the impacts on the land, both agricultural and otherwise, of the mining operations. He did not hold back in trying to bring to light the very obvious effects and impacts of this industry, which were in turn, and routinely, denied by the companies and the Government.
The answer that you cannot prove any negative impacts because you do not have the expensive scientific reports did not satisfy this man of the land who had witnessed first hand the effects. The issues confronting farmers affected by CSG mining creates differences of opinion within families and communities. These differences of opinion can then become divisions within families and communities. George witnessed this firsthand in those around him, and commented upon the manner in which he viewed CSG companies as being adept at creating and exploiting such divisions.
In the end, George Bender died from a broken heart, at witnessing first hand the tragedy unfolding around him. He fought to protect the air, land and water from the inevitable permanent damage that this industry is causing and has caused overseas. His struggles were not just for himself and his family, but for the whole country that depends on the agricultural and environmental resources unique to the Western Downs area. He was prepared to fight for what he truly believed in and call others to account. The tragedy is, in fighting for his country, his struggles are now his legacy, but it is the determination of those who have known and loved George Bender that his sacrifice not be forgotten.
Throughout his struggle, George took it to the politicians and the company executives, but never criticised the workers in the community who were doing their jobs. Many in the community are now mourning the loss of the person they could approach and talk to about their problems with the industry, someone who would listen and support them.
There will be many eulogies in honour of George Bender over the coming days. The family requests that the media respect their privacy and grieving at the funeral later this week.
The Bender Family, Hopeland, 19 October 2015
- This is an unedited version of a public statement released by the Bender family in Chinchilla on Monday evening.