Aboriginal group fights to stop $16bn Carmichael coalmine, Australia’s largest
An Aboriginal group in central Queensland is attempting to prevent Australia’s largest mine from being established on its ancestral land, in what is shaping up to be an unprecedented test of the country’s native title laws.
Representatives for the Wangan and Jagalingou people have formally rejected an Indigenous land use agreement that would see Indian mining firm Adani develop its huge $16bn Carmichael mine in the coal-rich Galilee basin region.
However, Adani has turned to the national native title tribunal to override this objection, which would allow the state government to issue a lease for the mine.
Burragubba told Guardian Australia that a deal to consent to the mine was rejected at a Wangan and Jagalingou meeting in October, prompting Adani to turn to the tribunal.
“We don’t consent to this large coalmine on our homelands, we have made it very clear to Adani that no means no,” he said. “The mine will destroy the natural environment, it will damage our laws and customs beyond repair and further dispossess our people.
“If the Queensland government succumbs to pressure from companies like Adani, there’s no hope for Aboriginal people. All our rights will be overridden.”
The Carmichael mine will be one of the largest in the world, covering more than 200 sq km and extracting 297 billion litres of water from local aquifers.
Burragubba said the proposed area for the mine includes the habitats of animals such as emus and echidnas as well as certain trees, all of which are considered totemic beings by the Wangan and Jagalingou people. The associated damming of the Belyando river is also of huge concern, he said.
“That river is important for dreaming because it travels through the heart of the country, the waterways relate to the rainbow serpent and our totems in the trees,” Burragubba said.
“If we lose that connection to land, there will be nothing left. We will be annihilated. We exist as people from that land. That’s all we are, we can only identify from what is there.”
The Wangan and Jagalingou people lodged an application for native title recognition in July 2004, for an area covering around 30,000 sq km of central Queensland. While the application is still under review, mining companies are still required to negotiate with the group to agree on land use. A decision from the native title tribunal is expected soon.
Queensland lawyer Stephen Keim, who is not acting in the case, said the complete rejection of the mine was the first of its kind and sets up a “significant event in the history of native title”.
“This is the first case with such a strong impasse, where the native title party has said ‘well we don’t want to negotiate compensation, we don’t want the action to go ahead,’” he said. “The native title act doesn’t give the right of veto, you’ve just got to keep working until you get an agreement.
“This situation does allow the arbitration process to say no, so perhaps for the first time we’ll see that happen. The impression has been that the arbiter has always seen mining as very important, but maybe this is the one.
“The native title act was a great compromise, it gave a lot to both sides. This case raises the issue of whether not giving Indigenous parties the right of veto was the correct compromise. Australia as a whole has to make its mind up on that.”
Keim said the situation the traditional owners find themselves in is seemingly at odds with the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, which calls for indigenous people to have “free, prior and informed consent” to any major action that affects them. Australia endorsed the declaration in 2009.
“If you have a native title party which says ‘I don’t consent’ that seems by definition to amount to an absence of free and informed consent,” he said. “We have to ask whether anything less than giving a veto complies with the UN declaration. That’s a test for us as a nation.”
The Carmichael mine has become a target for environmental campaigners over its impact upon the local environment as well as its ramifications for climate change.
The project is currently being challenged in the courts, with the Mackay Conservation Group claiming that federal environment minister Greg Hunt failed to properly consider Adani’s questionable environmental record in India when he approved the mine.
A number of high-profile banks, including Citi, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and Barclays, have ruled out funding the expansion of the Abbot Point port, which will be used to export coal from the Carmichael mine. A 300km rail line will connect the mine and the port.
A spokeswoman for Queensland’s Department of Natural Resources and Mines said the Wangan and Jagalingou people’s native title claim was currently stalled as it overlapped some of the same land subject to another native title claim lodged by the Bidjara people.
“The department has not been a party to any negotiations for an Indigenous land use agreement between the Wangan Jagalingou people and other parties over mining in the Galilee Basin, including the Carmichael mine project,” she said.
Burragubba is one of three named applicants in the Wangan and Jagalingou people’s tribunal case. However, Adani has said he is an “individual who is not authorised to speak on behalf of W&J, whilst purporting to do so”.
“Adani is aware of at least one instance where the authorised majority of the W&J applicant instructed that the native title tribunal should disregard an individual statement of one of its group because there had been a unanimous decision not to make a submission on two of Adani’s mining lease applications,” an Adani spokesman said.
“A part of the process established at law is a structured framework to ensure clarity and openness of process and timelines, including with reference to the national native title tribunal. Adani continues to negotiate with the W&J’s authorised representatives towards terms acceptable to all parties.”