One of the most inspiring speakers I’ve heard recently is Murrawah Maroochy Johnson, a 20-year-old from the Wangan and Jagalingou people (WJP) of central Queensland. She spoke passionately about the battle to stop the Carmichael mine on her ancestral lands. Adani, an India-based multinational, plans to build one of the world’s biggest coal mines in the Galilee Basin, causing environmental devastation and reaping billions of dollars in profit.
Tenacious Wangan and Jagalingou people are being ably led by Adrian Burragubba (left) and Murrawah Johnson (second from right). Photo: www.wanganjagalingou.com.au
Not equal in law. The WJP have three cases in the Federal Court and one in the Supreme Court of Queensland. Native title is at the heart of their argument. If the mine goes ahead, it would extinguish this First Nation’s ownership of 28 square kilometres of their country. The latest court action disputes the Queensland Mining Minister’s decision to grant Adani a mining license before the other legal matters are resolved.
Murrawah Johnson is the youth leader of the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council and her uncle, Adrian Burragubba, is the senior spokesperson leading these court cases. On behalf of other traditional owners, the pair have said they are prepared to fight all the way to the High Court. Johnson and Burragubba have travelled the world to build the mass opposition needed to stop the mine.
The Indigenous campaigners face many legal obstacles. The Traditional Owners Council’s response to the mine is an emphatic “No.” But big capital’s path is cleared by both federal and Queensland governments. In October, the state government invoked special powers to declare the mine as “critical infrastructure,” fast-tracking it so that construction can begin in 2017.
The federal government is also planning legislation to make it harder for environmental groups to pursue court action against developments, imposing strict definitions which limit remedies to “those directly affected.” This is in response to what mining companies call “blatant abuse” by green groups to delay and disrupt projects by seeking remedy in the courts.
The proposed legislation is designed to further restrict who can pursue court cases—which are already limited to those with deep pockets. If enacted, it would restrain environmentalists in the same way the passage of recent anti-union legislation aims to muzzle unionists.
The law is not a level playing field: it is designed to protect the interests of the class that rules. Despite this, in the battle against Adani, the WJP are prepared to use all tools to defend their sovereign rights, including the colonisers’ own legal system. But while prepared to use the law, their experience, as described by Johnson in agonising and frustrating detail, gives them no faith that the law on its own will deliver the outcome they want.
Lots at stake. They are leaders in what has become a massive campaign to stop environmental vandalism caused by six open-cut and five underground mines producing 60 million tonnes of emissions every year.
Traditional owners refuse to consent to mining on their ancestral lands and reject all offers of “shut-up money,” offered as inducements to sign away their rights. Adrian Burragubba, whose totem is the bee, talks about the land as his great-great-grandmother’s country going back to the beginning of time. This connection comes with obligations to protect the land and waters as well as plants and animals. The mine would have irreversible environmental impacts, draining billions of litres of ground water and damaging important springs.
The concern of First Nations environmentalists goes beyond the country they have an obligation to protect. The WJP say the mine would “cause damage to climate, unleashing a mass of carbon into the atmosphere and propelling dangerous global warming. We could not in all conscience consent to such wholesale destruction. Nor could we allow such a project to contribute to the dire unfolding effects of climate change that pose such a great risk to all people.”
If the mine proceeds, coal will be shipped to Abbot Point, a deep-water port owned by Adani. Whitsunday Residents Against Dumping have a court case arguing that the Queensland government, in approving Adani’s application to expand the terminal, failed to adequately consider the environment.
The movement is going from strength to strength. A rally was held in Sydney on 20 December to deliver 916,971 signatures on a petition to the Prime Minister, demanding that the government not subsidise Adani to build a railway line from the Galilee Basin to Abbot Point.
Locals taking action against climate change to save the reef. Photo: Whitsunday Residents Against Dumping.
Save the Reef. Up and down the Queensland coast, communities are mobilising to save the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef, which is seriously threatened by climate change. The reef is home to an immense biodiversity, with more than 600 varieties of hard and soft coral, 1,625 species of fish and 30 species of whales and dolphins. It’s a huge tourist attraction with almost 70,000 people working in jobs that rely on a healthy reef.
In 2016, the reef experienced the worst coral bleaching in history. Coral dies when the water becomes too warm, and global warming is continuing to heat the ocean. Only 7% of the Great Barrier Reef is unaffected by coral bleaching. A third of it, north of latitude 16°S, is effectively dead.
The connection between saving the Great Barrier Reef and stopping both the Carmichael Mine and expansion of Abbot Point is clear to locals who continue to demand “coral, not coal.”
Adani’s record of vandalism. The movement also points to the disgraceful behaviour of Adani. It built the large Mundra Port in Gujarat and made promises to comply with all environmental regulations when it got approval. These promises proved hollow. Adani destroyed seventy-five hectares of mangroves in a conservation area, blocked waterways and was caught bribing officials. Its action devastated local fishing and impacted the local salt industry. With this history, environmentalists are correct to question Adani’s promises to comply with the weak environmental requirements of the federal and Queensland governments. Yet even if Adani had a pristine record of transparency and governance, the project must be stopped. Given what we know about global warming, the time is long past for building coal mines. And it is beyond doubt that the environment will always come off second best, because the profit motive trumps planning.
Addicted to coal. Despite the participation of Australian governments in global talkfests to discuss climate change, there’s no commitment to action. The Queensland government’s target is to have 50% of all energy generated by renewables by 2030, yet it is enthusiastically backing the Carmichael Mine which—if built—will pump carbon emissions from coal into the planetary environment for 90 years.
Australia has a shocking carbon fuel record, according to a country-by-country assessment. Brown to green: assessing the G20 transition to a low-carbon economy was released last year by Climate Transparency ahead of the G20 summit in China. Australia was rated the worst performer in the G20, with a rating of very poor in the majority of categories. Australia’s greenhouse emissions per capita are four times the G20 average, and the ratio of subsidies to fossil fuels versus renewable energy was far worse than any other country. If all countries in the G20 had the same appalling performance, the world would be experiencing average global warming exceeding 3-4 degrees Celsius, which would be catastrophic.
No time to waste. Australia has the fourth largest coal reserves in the world and exported $38 billion in coal in 2014/15. The coal industry is just too profitable for the Queensland or federal government to willingly resist the project.
But they may have to. The groundswell of opposition to the project is growing, and the issues at stake—the sovereign rights of the traditional owners, the health of the Great Barrier Reef and the future of our only planet—are just too great.
The Carmichael mine is only one of nine proposed for the area. Underneath the Galilee Basin is a 247,000 square kilometre coalfield, making it one of the largest untapped fossil fuel reserves in the world. At capacity, it would double Australia’s coal exports and, according to Greenpeace, would be the seventh biggest contributor to CO2 pollution.
The 1950s saw the start of a global mining boom with capital embarking on a worldwide hunt for cheap, easily available mineral deposits. To the mining bosses, First Nations people living a traditional lifestyle and using land communally were wasting a resource. But to First Nations people, their lives and their culture were in harmony with the land which sustained them—they had no need to destroy it for profit. Values that do not destroy the earth can rule again.
We need to stop the Carmichael mine, leave the Galilee Basin coal in the ground and create a sustainable energy future based on planning. This means challenging the underpinning logic of the capitalist system. People and environment need to triumph over profit and corruption.