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With the Queensland government extinguishing native title rights over Wangan and Jagalingou land, the traditional owners have moved onto their ancestral Country to declare their sovereignty. By Anna Krien.

Part two: Second Adani blockade established

Wangan and Jagalingou women perform ceremony at the Adani site.
Credit: Mark Doyle

“It’s on!” A protester rushes past, looking through boxes for an HDMI adaptor. “Here it is!” she says, holding it up, before running back across the dirt at Camp Binbee to the farm shed, where a laptop and projector are set up.

On the verandah a group of us gather around the computer. At first the pixels on the live stream shudder and jostle, then the picture clears.

Adrian Burragubba of the Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) Family Council is on the screen. He is standing on a stretch of dry earth and long grass, tall trees with pale green leaves behind him. People are holding up a flag with an eel, an emu claw print and a river on it.

They are on Country.

Specifically, they are on a parcel of land over which the Queensland government quietly extinguished native title rights last week.

Legally speaking, this means that, in the eyes of the state, the 1385 hectares of embattled land in the Galilee Basin where Adani plans to put its critical infrastructure is no longer Indigenous land.

As for where the proposed coalmine is to be located, when mining is complete in 60 or so years, the W&J people are welcome to it.

“Are they setting up a camp?” asks a protester at Camp Binbee, the 18-month-held blockade established to stop Adani opening up the Galilee Basin. Everyone is watching the live stream.

“Should we go?” says another.

No,” says a protester firmly.

“I can’t hear,” says someone else. Another taps the volume. Speakers are found, the live stream briefly unplugged into silence, then the sound comes back on. Everyone leans forward to listen.

 

It took a few days for Burragubba and other W&J family to arrive at the proposed Carmichael coalmine site – a 13-hour drive from Brisbane, where many of them are based – and set up the camp on Country.

They put up their tents and began preparing the ground for ceremony. A dance circle was built and laid smooth with rich red dirt.

Then the families danced.

“That’s important to us, to dance on Country,” says Murrawah Johnson. “To say to the land, ‘We’re back and we’re sorry we’ve been gone.’ ”

At the same time, Adani, the Indian mining company, sent Burragubba a letter warning that he and W&J family members had trespassed on the land “without Adani’s prior consent”.

But the W&J Family Council is holding ground.

Strategically, their camp is placed on one of the most integral pieces of the Adani puzzle, where the mining company intends to build its critical infrastructure: the workers’ camp, airport, telecommunications towers and industrial area. Which is exactly why native title needed to be vanquished.

“The time has come for us to declare our cultural sovereignty and our connection as the first people here,” says Burragubba, extending a welcome for others to join them. “The invitation is to all First Nations people all around the continent and then for First Nations people all around the world.”

The question now is: Who is occupying the land?

Is it the six W&J families on the council? Or is it Adani, with the consent of six other W&J families?

Or is it, essentially, the state?

“This is between us and the state,” says Murrawah Johnson. “This camp is about making sure people see that our conflict is with the state.

“Adani, Palmer, those people come and go. But the state has been doing this to us since the 1860s, forcibly removing our people and then giving our land away without our consent.”

For almost eight years, the W&J families and Adani have been required to negotiate with one another. Lesser known is that while the W&J families put their native title claim to the tribunal in 2004 – when the stretch of Central Queensland land was considered nothing more than pastoral – their claim has still not been processed, 15 years on.

In 2009, Linc Energy announced on the Australian Securities Exchange that it had drilled four holes, each 120 metres deep, and had found there was – on W&J land – a hell of a lot of coal. Murrawah Johnson says the W&J people’s native title application has been “hijacked by that ever since”.

Such is the nature of native title legislation, negotiations over land use can still progress, and projects can break ground, before the land is returned – if it ever is – to the traditional owners.

Last year, senior barrister Tony McAvoy, often described as Australia’s first “Indigenous silk”, said the native title system “embeds racism”. McAvoy is a W&J man, aligned with Burragubba to stop the Adani coalmine. Arguing the case for native title reform, McAvoy has pointed to the duress put on traditional owners to either cede in negotiations or risk losing their claim to Country, along with any compensation that may accompany that loss.

A brief time line of the Adani and W&J negotiations to date stands as a case in point. In 2012, when Adani first proposed to W&J claimants to turn their ancestral Country into what’s known in mining speak as an “open void”, a 280-square-kilometre coalmine, the W&J group unanimously voted against the mine.

But, as is often the case, Adani simply lodged an action with the National Native Title Tribunal and was granted a mining lease regardless.

However, Adani still required an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA).

Twice, the Indian company’s attempts to negotiate an ILUA were rejected by the W&J people.

But outside pressure increased and, with the valid threat that everything could be lost before native title was even gained, a rift within the W&J families grew. When the Queensland coordinator-general got in touch to notify the traditional owners that, in lieu of an ILUA with Adani, the state was preparing proceedings to extinguish native title against all W&J Country, the W&J people split into factions.

As a tactic, it worked.

In 2015, W&J families led by Patrick Malone, a former chief executive of the Australian Indigenous Communications Association, and Irene Simpson, who now works for Adani as an Indigenous engagement officer, began to enter into discussions with the Indian company. With Malone and Simpson as directors, a trust fund called Cato Galilee was set up to look after the mining income for W&J people.

Meanwhile, the families determined to protect Country from coalmining had formed the W&J Family Council, with Adrian Burragubba as their spokesperson.

Still, Adani’s ILUA remained elusive.

In March 2016, the W&J families voted again, rejecting the mining company’s proposal. But then, just a month later, Adani got the result it was after – an overwhelming 294 to 1 vote in its favour.

A definitive result, one often quoted by Resources Minister Matt Canavan on Twitter. “The W&J peoples voted 294 to 1 in favour of Adani mine. The views of the traditional owners should prevail!”

The W&J Family Council say this was a “sham agreement”. “A sham meeting,” said Burragubba.

Murrawah Johnson describes the deal as “manufactured consent”. She, along with Burragubba and five W&J families, had boycotted the meeting.

In contrast, Malone and Simpson of Cato Galilee spoke proudly of the agreement, which had promised W&J would receive 7.5 per cent of the project’s jobs – though this is another controversial figure.

NITV’s Michael Carey put to Malone that his nephew Matty Girrabah Malone had sent a tweet from the floor of the meeting, saying, “Only come meeting for money.” Malone was furious.

“They got into trouble with me for that,” he told Carey. “They were my nephews and my son, okay? And they were talking drunk and stupid and I told them that I don’t do that.”

Craig Dallen, however, a W&J man who was at the meeting, has since withdrawn his support for the mine and alleged Adani paid him and others to recruit mine supporters, including Indigenous people not connected to W&J Country. In an affidavit, Dallen stated: “I was paid approximately $2000 by Adani to get people to the meeting. The more people I brought the more I was paid.”

Adani defended the legitimacy of the meeting, while Malone said W&J representatives at the meeting had “sat with an anthropologist and marked off people and made sure they were W&J”.

Nevertheless, in July this year, the W&J Family Council appealed to the Federal Court to overturn Adani’s 2016 land use agreement.

Their appeal was dismissed. While one judge on the full bench had cited the possible “dubious” activity relating to the agreement, they found Adani had sufficiently adhered to the Native Title Act.

Which it does. Which is likely Tony McAvoy’s point about the inherent racism embedded in the legislation.

With legal avenues exhausted, Burragubba, along with other W&J families, are now on Country. Johnson says they are bringing back people who “haven’t been on Country since the old people were removed in the early 1900s.

“We want to re-establish ourselves as strong people. Some of us have been vulnerable, taken advantage of, and we want to bring back ceremony and culture.”

In turn, the Queensland Police contacted the state’s native title services provider last week. Acting Senior Sergeant David Lucas said it was likely that “Adani will request the assistance of police to remove Mr Burragubba and his supporters from the camp”.

The W&J families who agreed to work with Adani will likely have to wait for most of the mining jobs to materialise in order to claim their 7.5 per cent. As for Cato Galilee, the fund said to be holding $1.1 million in Adani payments, it is now insolvent. In December last year, Irene Simpson was referred to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission to investigate whether she had committed offences while overseeing the Indigenous group’s trust fund.

Earlier this year, on the grass outside Parliament House in Canberra, Matt Canavan held a press conference to highlight the Indigenous traditional owners in support of the Adani project.

Patrick Malone was there. He spoke of the mine’s benefits to W&J people, as well as its benefits to Queenslanders more broadly. Citing the 294-1 vote, Malone was adamant that Adani had the support of his people.

Then Murrawah Johnson, as if dropped out of the sky, strode across the lawn. Boldly, she inserted herself into the frame.

“Look after Country,” she urged after a brief heated exchange.

“I know all about that,” replied Malone.

 

At Camp Binbee, the protesters melt away at the end of the live stream. Protester numbers here are swelling. At lunchtime the tables fill, people asking others to shift along the benches and squish up. Some are permanent players on the front line, others more transient and here on whatever leave they can take from their jobs.

There is a vet from Hobart, a landscape architect from the Sunshine Coast, a lawyer from Perth, a social worker from Townsville, an emergency nurse and a mental health nurse from northern New South Wales, a junior doctor from Ballarat, a teacher from the Gold Coast – the list goes on.

Nicola is a 25-year-old youth worker with Uniting Care in Townsville. She has been at Camp Binbee on and off since December. “It is a relief being here, actually,” she says. “Empowering.”

She grew up in Proserpine in a sugarcane-farming family. “This is my home.” She describes what strikes her as a worrying dissonance in Townsville.

“We work with extremely disadvantaged kids and families.” She wrings her hands. “Many of them were really affected by the recent floods. There was a clear spike in divorces and youth suicide rates after that, but the top end of town can only talk about Adani.”

At a recent work conference, she decided to express her concerns about youths in the region and what they are already facing in a warming climate.

“If we are going to genuinely advocate for our clients,” she says, “we need to start building a real resilience among the youth, especially those already disadvantaged, for what is coming.”

Sarah, 39, is also a social worker in Townsville. This year at an action at the Adani headquarters in town, a colleague spotted her in the media coverage and reported her involvement to their superior.

“It went all the way up,” she says, “and then the message that came back down was, ‘She’s a social worker, of course she is going to be passionate about issues.’” Sarah laughs, before pausing. “But it does make you wonder. There is a feeling, especially among public servants, that we don’t have any rights.”

She mentions the recent cases of rugby player Israel Folau and Michaela Banerji, a public servant in the Department of Immigration, who were fired for opinions they had posted on social media. “I do think people are worried about these things, that there could be a backlash, even if it is just liking a Facebook post.”

Rae and John, the camp’s “Grey Power” couple in their 70s, wander past. Listening in, they tell me about a faculty member in the University of Queensland’s School of Public Health, who has given her staff permission to march at the global climate strike on September 20.

“She is wonderful,” says Rae.

After lunch, I head off with a working group to rake and bag some dry grass. At the fence line next to the road, one of the protesters, Michael, shows the others how to maintain the firebreak. A four-wheel-drive goes past. “Best to wave,” he says, holding up his hand. The driver responds with the middle finger. Michael smiles, shrugs and hands out the rakes.

I meet a local who is a visitor at the camp. Gary is in his 50s and lives near Collinsville, an old mining town. He regales me with a story: he had been having dinner at the local pub with a friend and some of the older folk at Camp Binbee when a couple of young guys barrelled up to them.

“One of them accused us of not being locals and of disrespecting the history of Collinsville, including the miners who died,” Gary says and chuckles.

“I told him my grandfather died in that mine. That stopped him. Then Carol, who was sitting next to me, said [to one of them], ‘I taught you at school, Dan.’ ”

 

Out west, the Wangan and Jagalingou camped on their land are holding fast. The circle of red dirt they have laid down is beautiful, as is the eel-like path of the dancers who cross it.

And so, this is the state of play for Queensland, Adani, the Galilee Basin coal seam, the Wangan and Jagalingou people and the wider movement fighting for action on climate change, many turning to civil disobedience in the face of political apathy. It is also, say some, an opportunity to restore a democracy that has been steadily eroded because of the influence that lobbyists and mining magnates exert over politicians.

At the back of Camp Binbee is the Bogie River.

It is dry at the moment, a wide expanse of sand and cool overhanging trees. I visit it during my time at the camp, enjoying that strange feeling of walking down a dry riverbed, imagining the Bogie when it flows. There are a couple of former journalists at the camp. They crossed the line, they both tell me, with wan smiles. It’s something to think about.

A whump of startled wallabies catches my attention. I can just make out the tops of their ears over the grass. We stare at each other, two furry sentries and me. Later, in the evening, just on dusk, a flock of fat-bodied guinea fowl with pea-sized heads land clumsily in a tree to roost.

Once darkness falls, a documentary is projected against the wall of the farm shed. The children study their silhouettes in the projector’s glare. There is footage of a site being cleared for coalmining, a former forest down in Liverpool Plains that some of the crew here had tried to save years earlier. Explosives are being used, waves of brown dirt whooshing upwards as though the ground has suddenly shapeshifted into a series of ocean breakers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Part two: Second Adani blockade established". Subscribe here.

Anna Krien
is a Melbourne writer and journalist. Her most recent book was the award-winning Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport.