First Nations cultural rights in the 21st century mean we can say no to mega coal mines
By Murrawah Johnson. Spokesperson, Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Family Council
(Photo via Murrawah Johnson)
We come from Wangan and Jagalingou country. We are the people of the Galilee Basin in Central Queensland, whose lands and waters of the Carmichael and Belyando Rivers area, the place of our ancient and sacred Doongmabulla Springs, will be destroyed by the Adani Corporation’s coal mine. And other coal miners who will follow in their path… or down their rail line.
My people are the people of the land. The land can’t speak for itself, so it is my duty as a custodian and as a descendant of the first people to speak up for it. My bloodline goes back to the beginning of time in that country. I represent the people who come from the land, and most particularly, those that practice our law and culture.We are the ones condemned to the threat of the Adani Carmichael coal mine even though we have unequivocally and consistently said NO.
We are the ones who had the threat of seven mega mines lining up to decimate our land claim, reducing it to massive open cut coal pits and poisoning our water; effectively reducing our sacred lands and waters to nothing but a waste dump. We and all indigenous people have been thrown away by this country. The state has made it clear that we are disposable to them. The same way our rights are disposable to them.
As First Nations people we are adversely affected by both the local and the global impacts of coal mining. We are on the frontlines of extraction and experience, firsthand, the destruction of the land we’ve been in for thousands of generations. They impose mines on us without consulting us and we are denied the right to say no.
Burning the coal mined from our country accelerates global heating and threatens our connection to our Country. Massive coal projects in the Galilee Basin will destroy our way of life and our cultural rights. When our moieties, our totems, our reference points in Country are destroyed, we can no longer be who we are as the people from that land.
Country near Clermont, Australia. (Photo via the W&J community)
Our birthright is to enjoy and protect our homelands and live by our law. We cannot do that when our lands are systematically targeted for destruction by the policies of Governments, who take away our right to care for the land and pass on our culture. Our connection to our sacred water, the essence of our being and livelihoods in Country, is severed by coal extraction and climate change.
We have distinct and unique rights enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous cultural rights are strongly supported but are not well understood. Our culture is in the law of the land and is the expression of who we are as a First Nation. It is time Governments and Courts took that properly into account before approving vast coal mines that further dispossess us and deny us our rights.
Ask yourself if you would stay silent to the taking of your home because some legal professionals, business heads and politicians organised a group of people, who may or not be related to you, who may or not have a say over your home, to vote away your rights and authorise the destruction of your sacred places and significant places of dreaming?
How would you feel if you were forced to enter a contract because you’re not allowed to say no — you can only negotiate for some compensation within the confines of a violent and racist legislation; and if you don’t agree you’ll get nothing and the other party will get everything they want anyway?
This is what Adani’s mine ‘approval’ really means.
My people and other First Nations will not be duped. We know who the corporations and governments are that deny us our rights. We know the tricks of the trade that are plied to silence us and gain our so-called “agreement.”
Since 2012 my people have rejected and resisted the Carmichael mine being built on our land. We have voted “no” on multiple occasions and have fought on the international stage, in the courts of Australia, and across many political fronts to have our decisions respected. We will continue to resist, until no finally means no.
Governments and miners keep trying to limit our rights and circumvent democratic norms. We’ve been persecuted by pro-Adani lobbyists and politicians.
The talking points from Adani, and the Federal Government in Australia, about our supposed agreement to the mine are empty. It is incontestable that the coal mining leases held by Adani were granted by the Queensland State Government without consent, agreement or authority from the W&J people, in clear breach of our right to Free Prior and Informed Consent.
The engineering of a meeting by Adani and the State to then overturn our NO decisions and ‘approve’ the mine did not retrospectively validate these leases. It merely added a ‘veneer of consent’ and served to divide our people.
The Adani Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) was rendered invalid by a Federal Court decision in 2017. It was only rescued by the intervention of the Commonwealth Attorney General into one of our court proceedings, and by amendments to the Native Title Act 1993 to ensure the ILUA survived summary dismissal.
The Government moved the goalposts when Adani was about to lose. Its actions were taken with the express commitment of the Prime Minister of Australia to Gautam Adani to ‘fix’ the native title problem. Our rights are that “problem.”
Murrwah Johnson at a protest against the Adani Coalmine. (Photo via W&J Community.)
This “approval” therefore remains highly contested and controversial and lacks the legitimacy of genuine Free Prior Informed Consent. And it is not in accord with our traditional laws and customs for decision making.
If fully developed as proposed by Adani, the Carmichael mine will be among the largest coal mines in the world. The mine will tear the heart out of our country, permanently destroying vast areas of our ancestral homelands and everything on them — plants, animals, waterbodies, and sacred sites.
Adani’s rail and port infrastructure will also open the way to other major coal mines in the Galilee Basin, and our lands and waters, which are so sacred to us and form our culture, would disappear. We would not be able to pass our culture onto our children and grandchildren.
The Carmichael mine will devastate our sacred Doongmabulla Springs. The mine will draw down billions of litres of water each year from aquifers in the area, and if the mine depletes the aquifers that feed the springs, the springs will dry up. Once dry, even temporarily, the springs cannot be restored.
In addition, transporting and burning the coal from the mine will emit billions of tons of carbon dioxide over the mine’s proposed 60 years of operation, helping fuel runaway climate change.
Community concern in Australia about global heating was amplified by the cataclysmic, climate-change-fueled bushfires that decimated large parts of the country earlier this year. And this added to the international concern about the acceleration of these disastrous changes.
It’s important for communities to stand up and ‘Defend the Defenders’. First Nations like us are standing our ground — and have for years. But we need others to respect our distinct and unique rights as First Nations people. We are connected to stories around the globe. Other First Nations are fighting the sacrifice of their homelands too.
We are responsible for what happens on, and for what’s taken from, our country — and we’re opposed to rapacious climate wrecking extraction industries.
Coal is done. It’s time to move on to a better way. That will in turn involve respect for First Nations law — the law of the land.
The carbon fueled climate crisis threatens our connection to our sacred water, the essence of our being and livelihoods. We are on the frontline of extraction, and the destruction of our land that we’ve been in for thousands of generations.
We as a people now have to think about what climate change means. The climate catastrophe is the point where we draw a line — it feeds into the bigger issue of our ability to be on Country. Will we still be able to recognise our place in that Country because of the significant changes and impacts being wrought by mining, land clearing, dams and other developments. These destroy our cultural heritage and reshape our Country, so that it’s barely recognisable as the homelands of our ancestors.
We are always pushed out of the conversation on development when we want to protect our land and our rights. This must stop. First Nation cultural rights in the 21st century mean we say no to mega coal mines that destroy our lands because we have distinct cultural rights and obligations under our laws to protect them and all people who would be adversely affected.
More from Murrawah Johnson and the Wangan & Jagalingou community’s fight against Adani: