Indigenous Land Rights Could Halt Australia’s Largest Coal Mining Project*
Environmental concerns over the Adani mining project stem from the threat to the survival of both sacred springs and to maintaining the tradition of songlines – ancestral lines connecting across the land to protect the Earth.
By Maxine Newlands
Indigenous elders from the Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) people have put mining company Adani – and Australia’s governments – on notice to quit the Carmichael mine project over native title claims.
Wangan and Jangalingou Traditional Owners this week took a step closer to filing federal court papers challenging a document Adani “is trying to pass off as an Indigenous Land Use Agreement with our people” but which is “illegitimate” according to W&J Traditional Owner Council, Mr. Adrian Burragubba. The claim is over access to land near the mining town of Clermont in Central Queensland, 600 miles north of Brisbane.
The move follows the landmark ‘McGlade’ court ruling in Western Australia, earlier this month. The “McGlade” ruling states that, unless all peoples named on any native title claim – a Registered Native Title Claimants (RNTC) document – agree to lease the land, then no mining can go ahead.
In the W & J case, 40% (five out of 12) of those named on the RNTC refuse to support the Indigenous Land Use Agreement over fears for the ecosystem and the loss of cultural heritage.
Environmental concerns over this project stem from the threat to the survival of sacred springs and to the tradition of maintaining songlines – ancestral lines connecting across the land to protect the Earth. With 12 billion litres of water, (the equivalent to 400 Olympic size pools) needed for the mine, there’s unease over the future security of the Carmichael River and sacred Doongmabulla Springs. The springs are both central to the indigenous belief of dreamtime and the creation story and are an important ecosystem to the region.
What is native title?
Australia’s Native Title Act (1993) ensures that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are entitled to land taken from clans after the arrival of Europeans in the 18th Century. Communities enter into an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with mining companies over the use of traditional land rights.
ILUA is a voluntary agreement between a native title group and others over the suitable use of land and waters. ILUAs cover topics ranging from mining, future development, economic benefits including employment and compensation, preservation of cultural heritage and the safeguarding of native title rights, along with the rights of other people.
In 2004, Wangan and Jagalingou Peoples lodged a native title claim with the Registered Native Title Claimants (RNTC) for land they possess. The claim includes the right and interest to hunt, fish, camp, access natural resources, conduct traditional ceremonies, protect customs and traditions of the land, educate on the lands’ physical and spiritual attributes, and to be buried as native title holders on that land.
W&J youth leader and Council spokesperson, Murrawah Johnson, says: “We have maintained all along that Adani does not have the consent of the rightful Traditional Owners. Our Traditional Owners group have rejected an ILUA with Adani three times. We will defeat Adani’s fake ILUA and continue to fight for our land and culture until the company and Governments respect our rights and abandon this disastrous proposal”.
Adani reject claims over jobs and lack of indigenous support
Where green groups have failed in the courts, the indigenous peoples hope for success with a network of support and a different set of tools.
“Environmentalists and environmental campaigns have ways to take legal action to prevent the mines. I’m not saying for certain that we are going to win, but we’ve got a different set of tools we get to use” a W&J Council advisor told the Ecologist.
These tools include international support from other first nations and indigenous groups and the United Nations Special Rapporteur, Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz. The Tauli-Corpuz report (2016) recommends that Australia – a supporter of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People’s (UNDRIP, 2009) – upholds Article 32, granting traditional owners legal recourse to contest their land being used without their free, prior and informed consent.
W & J is also working with the Athabasca Chipewyan battling the tar sands in Alberta; the Achuar Indians fighting oil and gas in the Amazon and the Ogoni and Ijaw’s fight against Shell in the Niger Delta, and plan to take this campaign global – a W&J Council advisor says
“we already have international connections and support. Our intention is to widen this campaign, the cause and promote it globally”.
Adani in conjunction with the Bowen Basin Mining Company (BBMC) recently held a series of roadshows in the region for those seeking jobs and supply contracts. Nearly 1,300 regional business owners and suppliers met key project team members from both Adani and the mine construction and operations contractor, Downer Group. BBMC stated that “The supplier briefings were all extremely well-attended, with exceptional support from local industry associations, indigenous communities, councils and peak economic development bodies”, adding that “there was also a strong show of support for the Carmichael project from the Wangan & Jagalingou Traditional Owner groups, as well as other Indigenous groups and businesses in all locations”.
The roadshow events began with an indigenous supplier briefing, with Indigenous groups singled out as “a large focus of the mine, rail and port projects…the key to effective supplier proposals is indigenous involvement, as indigenous training and jobs, along with regional supply, are main priorities for project procurement”.
Some members of W&J are challenging the focus on indigenous jobs: “The jobs and benefits to indigenous peoples argument is a sham. It’s the usual package to clear the regulatory hurdles around native title” warned a W&J Council advisor.
Whilst Adani continues to work with indigenous groups over native title claims, green groups have been accused of underhand illegal tactics that could prevent jobs for the community.
Queensland Resource Council (QRC) has accused green groups of threatening behavior, saying: ” While we believe it is a democratic right to protest, using dishonest and underhanded tactics in a bid to cheat Queenslanders out of jobs, is going too far. We can only hope that no-one has been put in danger, or hurt, as a result of these desperate tactics, which had the potential to bring these groups into personal direct conflict with regional Queensland business people in attendance” said a company statement.
Undeterred, environmental activists groups are looking to work with the W & J and planning to hold the largest protest campaign the country has witnessed in the coming months. The Galilee Blockade campaigns will wait and see if W & J request support, and will continue to plan large scale direct actions and blockades.
Australian Government’s response is to bypass the law
In a week where Australian Treasurer Scott Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Minister for Energy and the Environment, Josh Frydenberg passed around the parliamentary chamber a large lump of coal in support of the fossil fuel industry, both the Federal and Queensland governments are looking at ways to push through the project as a matter of national critical infrastructure development.
Australia’s pro-mining Attorney General George Brandis wants to rush through new legislation allowing the Adani mine and the remaining 40 other mining projects in Queensland all affected by the McGlade ruling to go ahead.
Any new legislation would be a reversal of current policy to a 2010 ruling (Bygraves decision) that stated that as long as a majority decision was made by a native title claimant group then all deals can go ahead.
Leading Aboriginal rights advocate, a primary W&J Traditional Owner and Council, Adrian Burragubba, says: “Our fight is far from over. Anyone who wants to bankroll Adani, and the Queensland and Commonwealth Governments, is now on notice that we will not stand by if attempts are made, in response to the Noongar decision, to put our rights and interests, and our laws and customs, on the chopping block for the mining lobby,”.
Wangan and Jangalingou Traditional Owners are currently awaiting for Adani’s official response before deciding whether to go to court.