Activist takes up fight against Canterbury coal mine

Siana Fitzjohn with her KuneKune pig Splodge and sheep Little Hope. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Siana Fitzjohn with her KuneKune pig Splodge and sheep Little Hope. Photo: Geoff Sloan
Siana Fitzjohn is a fighter for the environment. She talks to Devon Bolger about her work with Extinction Rebellion and mounting opposition to a coal mine expansion in Canterbury.

How did you get started with Extinction Rebellion?
I had just come back from a trip to see my family in England. I had finished up my masters in science communication in Dunedin and went overseas for a while to recover. I had sort of put climate activism on the backburner for a good year or so but when I came back and saw how much energy was rising up in Christchurch around climate issues I wanted to be involved. Extinction Rebellion just seemed to inspire a lot of people and get a lot of people involved, so I saw it as a way to jump back into climate activism without the responsibility of taking on an entire group myself.

What is Extinction Rebellion?
It is a group that supports and encourages citizens uprising in New Zealand that involves low level and higher risk acts of civil disobedience. It is about trying to change the trajectory we are on as humans at the moment.

Tell me about your role as a spokesperson there.
We did a blockade of a coal train last year in Christchurch and launched a bit of a rebellion against coal. I was the spokesperson at that action and with the stuff around the Bathurst coal mine in Selwyn. I have been particularly passionate about resisting coal mining in New Zealand since I went over to the West Coast and visited a couple of the mines over there. We saw one called Happy Valley. It was sad to see a really beautiful valley turned into a massive mine. It sort of unites my passion for protecting New Zealand’s unique ecology, and my climate activism, because coal damages both the ecosystem where it gets mined and the climate when it gets burnt.

Could you tell me about your concerns with the proposed expansion of Bathurst’s coal mine in the Malvern Hills near Darfield?
Extinction Rebellion started because we recognised that there was a very real threat to humans’ well-being on the planet and extinction is imminent for quite a few species including ours if we continue on the trajectory that we are on. Resisting the Canterbury coal mine first and foremost came because we are in the middle of a climate emergency and coal is the most potent contributor to climate change. The mine does damage to an ecosystem that’s already really degraded. Canterbury rivers are known globally as being incredibly polluted and the mine will further pollute that catchment that people are trying really hard to restore.

Siana Fitzjohn at the Extinction Rebellion week of action protests in Wellington. Photo: Supplied
Siana Fitzjohn at the Extinction Rebellion week of action protests in Wellington. Photo: Supplied
Where did your passion for the environment start?
My parents instilled a real firm respect for non-human beings in me. I grew up in various countries such as Singapore and Abu Dhabi before I moved to New Zealand in 2001. I remember seeing instances of environmental destruction from a young age you know like a tree I loved being cut down or a forest at the end of the road and I remember being very deeply affected by those instances and felt very powerless. It grew from there with me doing a lot of volunteering and working in
the climate movement. It has been about 10 years that I have been doing that. Since I was about 19.

What would you say has kept you going all this time?
Having really good friends who are also activists. It can be gruelling and tiring. I would definitely say the people.

Have there been any scary moments during your climate activism?
One would have been about a year ago in Dunedin when a whole bunch of different groups were trying to shut down the minerals forum, that’s the coal and minerals conference they were having where all the delegates get together and plan expansions of the various industry facilities. We had quite a nasty situation where a few of us, mainly women, were blocking a doorway and we had police bust out from the inside and bust in from the outside and we were caught in this real crushed crowd situation and the crowd kind of collapsed. Someone really badly injured their knee so that was quite scary.

Have there been any exciting or particularly satisfying moments?
There have been heaps, one of them is probably getting on the oil rig off the coast of the South Island to protest against fossil fuel extraction. We spent 10 years campaigning against deep-sea oil and finally we could go out and meet them at sea out on the rig. It was quite a big moment for me and a pretty exciting chase on the high seas.

Have you had any brushes with the law because of your activism?
I have had a few arrests and a couple of trespass charges. Most of the time I have found the judges we have come in front of have been quite understanding. One example is when we boarded the Skandi Atlantic last year in Timaru. We had about 27-odd people board a boat that was a support vessel for an oil rig. We were there for two days and most of us got arrested for that. We are actually waiting to see what the court proceedings will be for that.

How long have you lived near Darfield?
We have been here going on about 18 years. I lived here for a while and then lived in Dunedin and now I am back.

What do you like about living in Canterbury?
I love the Selwyn River, it is a really special place to me. I really love that you can drive for 45min and you are in the middle of the mountains and if you drive for 50min in the other direction you are at the ocean. There is such a varied landscape available and I keep discovering new bits that I have not spent much time in.

Could you tell me a bit about your family?
There is just the four of us here; my mother April, father Dave and my younger sister Jessie. My mum is a teacher, my dad is the chairman of the Lincoln Envirotown Trust and Jessie is in the middle of her PhD in mechanical engineering. We all went in quite different directions. We are pretty close just being the four of us and I’m really lucky to have a family who is so supportive of my climate activism because not everybody supports it.

Do you have any pets?
Yes, I am a real animal person. I have my pig Splodge, she is a kunekune and was my 14th-birthday present so she is still going strong. She is about 15-years-old. I have a sheep called Little Hope who I rescued during one of my walks. She was really skinny and starving, her mother had abandoned her so I took her home and now she lives out in the paddock. We have a dog called Mercy who is a brindle staffy cross, two cats, a rooster called King Henry VIII and three remaining hens.

If you could take one item with you to a desert island what would it be?
I was going to say something practical like a water condenser but that is no fun. I would take a set of juggling balls. I can juggle but I have only got just the basic pattern down. It would be good, they would keep you busy.



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