An anti-coal blockade in the Leard Forest, New South Wales. Image from New Internationalist blog.
On 31August, the Queensland government quietly extinguished the Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) indigenous people’s traditional title over 1,385 hectares of land, including the Carmichael mine site proposed by Indian power giant, Adani a decade ago. Anticipating the state’s decision, W&J families had been camping near the mining site, expecting forced eviction and accusations of trespass over their own land.
The indigenous owners of the land on which coal mining has now begun, released a short video last week. It opens with Adrian Burragubba, W&J elder and chief figure of the anti-mine resistance, declaring his people’s sovereign rights over the land. Welcoming all indigenous and non-indigenous people to their sacred land, Burragubba declared the W&J’s resolve to keep fighting.
The W&J had filed a native title claim for the land in 2004, six years before proposals for coal mines in the Galilee Basin were developed. The Queensland government left the question of their native title unresolved for fourteen years until last week. Then it turned nearly half the land claimed by the W&J to freehold and handed it over to Adani for the Carmichael mine.
The W&J resistance to the Carmichael coalmine and struggle to reclaim their ancestral land has had a long and highly-visible six-year journey. . In the end, they lost out to Australia’s and Queensland’s coal ambitions. The W&J put up one of the most sustained resistances ever, both in and out of court, yet could not succeed. The W&J formed an anti-fossil fuel solidarity with First Nation peoples of Canada and the United States, who are also fighting large extractive projects and pipelines on their lands. They got the United Nations and the international banks that were financing the Carmichael project to hear their voice. The global solidarity and strong public support within Australia that the W& got could not restore their rightfully-claimed land, which had been stolen from them during the white settlement of Australia.
The bulldozing of indigenous cultural values, sacred sites and native land arises from limitations that were built into the Native Title Act, a law cleared by the Australian government in 1993. Its provisions require a mining company to negotiate with native title holders (and claimants such as W&J) for an agreement—known as the indigenous land use agreement or ILUA—and settle upon a compensation for mining operations on their land.
If the two parties fail to reach an agreement, the mining company can go to the Native Title Tribunal, also cleared by the Act. This tribunal can pave the way for mining by asking the state to issue leases. The state is then entitled to extinguish the native title and hand over the land to the mining project. In this way, the native title-holders risk getting nothing although their land is taken over and destroyed by mining.
Tony McAvoy, Australia’s first indigenous senior counsel, who is a member of the W&J family, was central to the community’s long legal resistance in Queensland. He has said that the Native Title Act “embeds racism” and puts indigenous groups under “duress” to accept a company’s terms or risk losing it all.
The W&J conflict with Queensland and Adani followed a much more circuitous trajectory on account of the multiple legal challenges pursued by them. They had argued that NTA provisions allowed the Federal Court of Australia to dismiss their challenge to Adani’s indigenous land-use agreement in July, even though it was faulty.
The W&J family council representative alleged that Adani had ‘manufactured consent’ at a controversial ILUA meeting in April 2016, by paying off and recruiting non-members of the family to vote in favour of the mining project. This matter, however, cannot be scrutinised under the provisions of the NTA.
Strictly going by the written provisions of the Act, the Queensland government then turned nearly half of the W&J’s claimed native title land to freehold and handed it over to Adani to build infrastructure for the mine. This happened despite assessments finding that coal projects in the Galilee are not viable. Appeals by the W&J not to extinguish their native title on the basis of a fraudulent land-use agreement obtained by the company also did not help their case.
The other aspect of the case is the transnational chain of human rights violations that the mining project will unleash, now that the W&J land has been handed over. The broader global risk of climate change from burning coal produced by Carmichael (and the few other mines that may now be kick-started) is one violation.
The chain of human rights violations to follow will span the land and sea pathways along which this coal will be extracted, transported, shipped, burnt and supplied as electricity.
In this chain we can include the sacred lands of the W&J, reef tourism and farming in Queensland, entire countries in the Pacific Islands that risk being swallowed by the rising sea level, India’s poor—who have time and again been used as the moral justification for the Carmichael mine, but who will be the worst-affected by climate change for they lack the capacity to cope with it—and the vulnerable populations of low-lying Bangladesh, the final destination of the thermal power that this coal will generate.
This transnational coal trail originates in Central Queensland but it will pass through Godda in Jharkhand, India, where Santhal community land has been forcefully taken away by the state for a power project that Adani will run and operate. There were widespread protests against this plant that were violently crushed. The irony of a state government acting in favour of a corporation is compounded by the fact that Jharkhand will not benefit from the thermal power produced at this plant. Its power is to be transmitted to Bangladesh under a Memorandum of Understanding signed with Adani in 2017 to purchase power—rather expensively.
If and when Adani’s coal, dug out of the native land of the W&J people, travels along this transnational pathway, it will trample upon a wide range of human rights and environments.
In the meantime, the resistance to Adani in Queensland has not dissipated. The 18-month blockade camp, situated inland from the pro-coal mining town of Bowen (three or four hours from the mine site) has now started to swell with volunteers of all ages and walks of life. They are ready to blockade port, rail and mining activities and to get arrested.
Blockade camps have become a continuous feature of civil society coal resistances in Australia in the last decade. The first blockade in 2012 in the Leard State Forest of Northern New South Wales against Whitehaven Coal’s mine became widely known for its use of non-violent direct action methods—primarily activists locking on to machinery. They were also known for fomenting collaboration between local farmers with the Gomeroi indigenous traditional owners, protest groups and Australian civil society alliances. During the peak days of blockading, hundreds of volunteers would gather at the Leard Camp daily.
Many Leard Forest blockade leaders and volunteers are now filing into the anti-Adani blockade camp in Central Queensland, although it is relatively remote compared with the sites in New South Wales. The Queensland government is stepping up police surveillance of protesters in anticipation of civil disobedience now that the Adani mine has started production.
If the Queensland government had not taken away the rights of the Wangan and Jagalingou to their lands, they might have reconciled, in some measure, both past injustices of indigenous dispossession and future injustices of climate impact. But in giving the land to a corporation with a troubling human rights record, while the traditional owners exhausted all possible means of resistance, they have unreconciled the past and the future.
Ruchira Talukdar is a PhD scholar at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney. Her research compares coal politics and resistances movements in India and Australia.