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Wendy Bowman Shall Not Be Moved

May 4, 2017

Myriah Cornwell, Program Officer for Islands and Island Nations looks back at her first encounter with Wendy Bowman, one of the latest recipients of the Prize at her home in the lush Hunter Valley region of Australia earlier this year.

When I first pulled up to Wendy Bowman’s farm, it was a burning hot summer day in the countryside of Australia’s Hunter Valley. Wendy’s farm house was a green oasis in this dry land. As we started talking in the shade of her garden, she told me how she had been working in her garden next to the cow pasture. As she moved to stand up, she found herself nose to nose with one of the inquisitive calves who had stuck his head through the fence. Just to say hello, she told me, and to see if Wendy had a bit of cabbage, which she often feeds her cows as a treat. Just another day on Wendy’s farm.

Wendy tending to her herd. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

Wendy’s affection for her cows is apparent in her care for them. The next day, a much cooler morning, I helped her feed the herd. Wendy walked through the herd talking to them as she passed out hay. It’s much better this way, she explained, the cows are quiet and if they have any trouble and need to go to the vet, they will accept her help. She told me that even two of her bulls were friends; she’d caught them snuggled up together in the field.

Wendy has an energy that we should all aspire to have at 83 years old. As we talked in her kitchen, Wendy leapt across the linoleum floor in imitation of the leaping lemurs she’d once seen in Madagascar. It would be a mistake to underestimate Wendy. Yancoal did when they tried to swallow her Rosedale farm into a coal mine. Wendy operates with a steely reserve born out of raising a family and cattle in the Australian countryside. When she stands her ground, Wendy Bowman will not be moved.

“It would be a mistake to underestimate Wendy.”

As I walked Wendy’s farm, she pointed to Glennies Creek running next to her property, a vital freshwater source in this dry country. The creek and Wendy’s farm would have been destroyed by Yancoal’s proposed coal mine. It was this vital water supply and the soil that sparked Wendy to tell the coal company to take their buyout offer and “stick it up their jumper.”

A mandatory selfie with the formidable activist! (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)

In 2005, Wendy had reluctantly accepted the loss of her family home, the one where she had raised three children, when it was destroyed by a coal mine. But that land, Wendy told me was just grazing land; it didn’t have the water and soil of her current farm. For Wendy, the destruction of clean water and good growing soil is the destruction of Australia’s future.

As Wendy and I talked about her struggle against the powerful coal industry in the Hunter Valley, I thought that Wendy and Edward Loure, the 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner from Africa, would have a lot to talk about. On the surface, they might not have much in common—a Maasai man from the northern Tanzania rangelands and a white Australian woman from coal country. But when I talked with Wendy, I heard echoes of the ethos that Edward had expressed to me.

As Wendy explained how the coal mines have decimated the underground water supply, vital to the agriculture, viniculture, and animal husbandry in Hunter Valley, Wendy told me, “Water is life.” I recalled Edward standing on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House telling the audience, “Land is Life.” Wendy and Edward share an ethos about the bush, the vitality of water and land that supports life. They care in a way that goes far beyond their individual interests as caretakers of cattle; they are stewards of country.

“It was the vital water and soil that made Wendy tell the coal company to take their buyout offer and “stick it up their jumper.””

Wendy told me that before she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, she thought about tempering her activism and taking a step back. But now, after receiving the award and meeting the other 2017 Prize winners, she is energized. Wendy is staying in the fight for clean water and productive soil, and she’s not going to back down.

You too can stand with Wendy to stop the coal land rush in rural Australia.

Political cartoon featuring Wendy Bowman in a Hunter Valley newspaper in 2009. (Image credit: Peter Lewis)

Myriah Cornwell is trained as a cultural anthropologist, focusing on the intersections between humans and nature around issues of environmental justice. She has conducted research on networks of grassroots organizations dedicated to coastal conservation, and published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Before joining the Prize, Myriah oversaw grantmaking in support of marine resource management and biodiversity conservation. At the Goldman Environmental Prize, Myriah leads research and recommendations for Prize candidates from Africa and Islands and Island Nations, and supports selected winners. 

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