Fighting the industry her little town was built on

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Gemma Marnane’s mission is to end mining in her small town in Southland, even if it puts her in conflict with the community and her own parents.

In rural Southland, coal is black gold.

The controversial fossil fuel has kept the wheels of industry spinning in quiet ponds for longer than most residents can remember.

But the change is blowing a cold wind down the hill from the Takitimu Mountains towards Ohai and Nightcaps.

Last month, one of the region’s oldest mines announced it was shutting down after more than 100 years of operation.

At the same time, another is seeking to enter the market in a nearby municipality-owned forest block.

In Wellington, 1000 km north of the two sites, and in the town where she grew up, 20-year-old Marnane finds herself in a unique position.

In August, Forest & Bird announced it would sue Southland District Council for allowing exploration at the new site.

As Forest & Bird’s youth communications manager, Marnane now challenges an industry that remains the cornerstone of the two small towns that she still considers her home.

But she is not afraid of battles. Her life started with one when she was born three months premature.

When Marnane came into the world, she was so small that her father’s wedding ring was on her wrist, she says.

The early start and the challenges that followed gave her a mantra that she carried into adulthood: Life is a miracle.

“I guess that’s what makes me want to change things up and speak out,” she says.

“I’m so lucky to be here, to exist. So I think it’s really important that a lot of people see the value that our lives have.”

For Marnane, her philosophy has brought her to a place where she devotes her life to taking care of what she loves most: nature.

Marnane’s family did not stay in Invercargill long after she was born and she spent her entire childhood in Nightcaps, 300 inhabitants.

Before he was born, both of his parents worked in the mine and have different views on the environment.

“Working in the mines is a pretty prestigious thing, it’s a pretty risky job. It’s something that is seen as heroic in a way,” she says.

But Marnane always felt like the intruder.

In primary school, education was sometimes geared towards coal mining, and she has vivid memories of going to the Ohai site on a school trip.

While all the other children were fascinated by the machinery, Marnane was confused, but couldn’t quite understand why.

“Throughout my life, I have considered myself as an outsider. I had different opinions and I couldn’t express them,” she says.

“It wasn’t normal to have different opinions, especially being so young.

“In an aging community, that doesn’t really add up. “

Marnane refused to let differences in worldviews prevent her from expressing herself.

She joined the Southland District Youth Council in high school, but again felt like an outsider.

While his main concern was Southland’s environment, his peers were more interested in local infrastructure.

In 2019, she filled out an application to run in the general election and even printed her own business cards, but board members told her she was too young to run.

Marnane understands the challenges.

In rural Southland, the community is tight, the industry is strong and the change is freezing.

Most of the reluctance to a vision of a cleaner, greener future comes from people who argue that you can’t just “turn out the lights” on the coal industry, Marnane says.

But she remains optimistic that solutions can be found that benefit everyone, and believes that effective ways forward will involve transition rather than instant eradication.

“I’m so optimistic. I know Southland has such a plethora of sensational nature and something so important to our economy. That’s what people come to Southland for.

“I think there is a huge opportunity here to move away from coal and have a future with jobs that last, that are sustainable and fair.”

The community may have to be convinced, but Marnane is here for the long term.

Climate change is now a problem, she says, and she plans to return to the region one day, which has set her on the path that she now travels, in part, on her own.

Her parents have asked her to take a step back in her activism because of the stakes for both sides, but she has no plans to slow down anytime soon.

She is grateful that they taught her to find her own voice.

“If some people see my story, I hope they will see that it is more than just an environmental case,” she says.

“This is my life and the life of other young people in Southland.

“I’m going to go back to Southland and live there for the rest of my life. I’m going to be a taxpayer, so I have a say as well.”


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