Kristen Lyons, Anthony Esposito and Murrawah Johnson
Crisis has settled into our material and emotional landscapes, bearing down upon ecologies, human life, and everyday people’s livelihoods. Climate chaos, the Covid-19 global pandemic, and structural racism and rising socio-economic inequalities (as profoundly exposed through the global Black Lives Matter movements), are each separately – and in conjunction – redefining life, love, grief, work, mobilities, learning, and more. In Australia, as is similar elsewhere, the waves of crisis crash upon us relentlessly. We had only begun pulling ourselves from the ashes of the 2019/20 devastating bushfire catastrophe when the Covid-19 global pandemic was upon us; further exposing the inequalities that run deep through Australian society, and their grounding in an unredressed, violent, settler colonial history. That Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders, alongside women, older people, and youth, are each amongst those facing particular vulnerabilities due to Covid-19, demonstrates the ways this unjust – and unreconciled – social order endures.
The lightning rod for both the origin and spread of Covid-19 – across species and the human community – is the same as that driving the climate crisis, to which Australia’s most recent landscape-scale inferno is symptomatic. Their driving pulse is the relentless pursuit of new frontiers for increased resource extraction, commodification, and profit making, irrespective of the impacts on our finite planet. While there is some dispute about how Covid-19 spread from non-human animals to humans – with pangolins, bats, and other wild hosts each named as potential carriers – there is no doubt its cause was directly tied to an extractivist imperative that, as Rob Wallace explains in Big Farms Make Big Flu (2016), seeks out conquest and control over new landscapes, ecologies, and species. Extractivism is the enabler for the intensification of food systems – including the wet market in Wuhan, China, that was likely ground zero for the contagion – driving deforestation and rupturing the boundaries between human and non-human worlds, enabling Covid-19 (and other viruses) to spread. The same extractivist imperative propels today’s fossil-fueled climate emergency, driven by an economic system stemming from earlier iterations of imperialism and colonialism (Gomez-Barris 2017).
The cracks in our lives sparked by these crises open up opportunities to rethink these economic, social, and political systems of exploitation and domination. Indeed, both the global pandemic and climate emergency demand that we do so. The Australian federal government, however – and similar elsewhere – has so far missed this opportunity. In fact, there has been a concerted effort to control the public narrative to ensure that alternative futures are not considered.
Now, instead, we are being steered backwards towards fossil-fueled economic models – albeit with more efficient and scaled-up extractivist technologies and methodologies. This was led by the Covid-19 National Coordination Committee – stacked with cronies from the gas and mining lobbies – and shored up by dismantled environmental and corporate regulations, and the massive transfer of intergenerational wealth into the upper echelons of private sector economic elites.
Rather than supporting social and economic recovery, this pathway is set to entrench on-going crisis and inequality. Another future, however, is possible. This is a future that starts with the challenges to violent extractivism driving destruction of earth systems, and where First Nations are its frontline. This article contributes to thinking about how we might move beyond the grasp of extractivism. It does this by reporting on a group of Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners whose sustained defense of their rights, including the right to say “no”, set them in opposition to Indian industrial conglomerate Adani and its plans for the Carmichael coal mine on their homelands. In so doing, they – and like other First Nations peoples in Australia, and around the world – are forging a human rights-led agenda to decarbonise development.
Indigenous Peoples take the lead in a Post-Extractivist Future in the Making
As Potawatomi scholar-activist Kyle Whyte (2017) explains, First Nations have worldwide been engaged in defiant defense of their ancient possession of land and the cultures that have embodied the laws and customs of their societies for millennia. This is a stand against mineral resource extractivism as long and sustained as the processes of destruction unfurled by imperial “discovery”. In so doing, Indigenous rights movements are unsettling once immutable colonial legal, economic, and political structures. They are reimagining a future beyond both fossil fuels and extractivism, and the dominance of neo-colonial elites.
In Australia, the resistance of a group of Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners to the Adani Carmichael thermal coal mine – one of the worlds’ last such mega mines – have centred their rights, including the right to say “no”, in opposing violent extractivism on their homelands. In so doing, they – like other First Nations peoples in Australia, and around the world – are demanding a pathway towards decarbonisation that would also enable Australia to uphold its internationally recognised Indigenous rights obligations. In so doing, Wangan and Jagalingou’s defense of their rights is separate and distinct from the anti-Adani battles waged by environmental and climate groups, often under the banner of “Stop Adani”.
Securing a human rights-based future will be central, as Naomi Klein explains in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), to ensure a future livable planet. Without rights being given full effect, there is simply no justice, and no correction to the course of inequitable capital accumulation and accelerated resource depletion. To build this future, however, we must grapple with what eminent Native American attorney Walter Echo-Hawk (2010) describes as the enduring legacies of Australia’s racist, settler colonial origins. The Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners’ remarkable struggle has provided a historic moment in Australian resource politics to do just this. They have rendered bare a racist apparatus that enables the inexorable forces of extractivism; and through contesting this contemporary injustice, have bought urgency to the demands for a rights-based post-extractivist future.
Australia’s Commitment to Resource Extractivism
Since colonisation began, Australia’s evolving national identity, and what economist John Quiggin (2019) has called state developmentalism, were each hitched to a resource extractivist bandwagon. To achieve this mission, the colonial project was – as detailed in Damien Short’s Redefining Genocide: Settler Colonialism, Social Death, and Ecocide (2016) – defined by violent frontier massacres and Indigenous dispossession to secure land, territory, and resources. The legacies of this coloniality and conquest continue up to today, feeding institutional racism across contemporary law and politics. Marcia Langton and Odette Mazel (2008) show this brought to life in the on-going irreversible destruction of Indigenous homelands, as well as exacerbating social and economic disadvantages Indigenous peoples frequently experience as a direct result of forced engagement with the resources sector. While Rio Tinto ignited justifiable international outrage in 2020 by destroying Juukan Gorge (Hepburn 2020), mining companies have already left a path of cultural and ecological destruction across the continent, which is frequently rendered invisible by the extractivist cheer squad in government, the media, and the corporate sector.
Extractivism is the architecture upon which the commodification and trade in Australia’s “natural resources” has been, and continues to be, built. With its insatiable pursuit of unlimited profit, extractivism reaches across natural systems and ecologies; whether it’s drilling deep into the earth for minerals or entangling novel non-human species within agri-food chains. That the pangolin attained global infamy as possible intermediary in the transmission of Covid-19 to humans – a scenario made possible by it becoming the most illegally traded animal in the world, as reported in the Guardian by Graham Readfearn (2020) – is part and parcel of the extractivist logic that seeks relentless expansion and capital accumulation.
Turning to coal, the story is no different. With one of the world’s largest reserves, Australia is the world’s second largest coal exporter, with World Coal (2018) estimating an export value of AUS$56.5 billion in 2017. Despite the recent decline in national coal exports – alongside the rapid global energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy – Australia’s conservative institutions remain smitten with coal and eager to extract as much of it as they can before the climate crisis and energy revolution catch up with them.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s brandishing of a lump of coal in parliament (he was the Treasurer at the time) is just one of many political performances intimating that there is no conceivable future without coal; and that the burning of coal doesn’t really constitute a global threat. More recently, the great coal champion and climate denialist, Queensland Senator Matt Canavan, was seen advocating for “Black Coal Matters” – a racially charged appropriation of language synonymous with the global “Black Lives Matter” movement – in a provocative attempt to elevate the value of Australia’s entrenched coal identity, and the supposed victimhood of regional mine workers in the face of international action necessary to avert climate catastrophe.
Adani: Too Well Protected to be Stopped
This pro-coal logic, as Quentin Beresford laid bare in Adani and the War Over Coal (2018), runs through the agencies and offices of Australian government at the highest levels, as well as in entrenched legal regimes, and exerts tremendous political force against action and change. On this highly biased playing field, Adani’s Carmichael coal mine – one of Australia’s most controversial mining projects in recent history – was perhaps always going to be too well protected by institutional arrangements to be stopped. Now under slow and protracted construction in Central Queensland, the Carmichael open cut coal mine – if ever operational – is intended to “open up” the region known as the Galilee Basin. Regarded as Australia’s largest untapped thermal coal reserve, the lure of riches has inspired conquest of the continents’, and likely the world’s, last coal frontier.
The Galilee Basin covers an area of 247,000 square kilometers in Central Queensland and is touted as having the potential to be the largest coal producing region in Queensland, and one of the largest coal basins in the world. Adani especially, along with other coal prospectors in this region, including the wealthy Queensland industrialist, Clive Palmer, has ignited a furious public contest over the opportunity costs of opening a new coal province as we face global heating, and has intensified ideological and demographic divisions across the nation.
As David Ritter documents in The Coal Truth: The Fight to Stop Adani, Defeat the Big Polluters, and Reclaim our Democracy (2018), there has already been so much said about this mine: the environmental costs of a ticking “carbon bomb”, including threats to endangered species and the Great Barrier Reef; Adani’s dodgy international track record of human rights abuses and environmental harm; the lies about employment figures; the failed economics of the project; the revolving door between Adani and government staffers and lobbyists; royalty holidays; and so much more. Adani has also fueled conflict and divided Indigenous Australians, especially those whose homelands are directly impacted by the mine, as well as by related rail and port infrastructure.
Given all this, what could be left to say? And what, if anything, might we learn from this about charting a future that avoids the fossil-fueled destruction of Earth’s life support systems?
Indigenous Rights “Whited Out” of the Adani Story
We argue that a central part of the story of this mine and its relationship to Australian resource politics has largely been whited out of conservative public and political debates, and yet, or maybe because, it provides a rare opportunity to inform pathways towards an ecologically viable and socially just future. This is the story written by a group of determined, and self-determined, Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners, who have sustained resistance to Adani’s culturally and ecologically devastating mine project since its inception. They have fought a staunch community, political and legal campaign grounded in their responsibilities as land custodians and water protectors, and their rights as First Nations people.
Adani’s Carmichael coal mine will colonise Wangan and Jagalingou homelands, with Adani’s coal tenements and mining leases within the 30,000 square kilometres of land in Central Queensland under native title claim by Traditional Owners of Wangan and Jagalingou Country. The rail corridor that Adani is building will open their Country to an array of other coal traffickers, and at a scale, as imagined by the state, that would devastate the entirety of these ancestral lands.
Wangan and Jagalingou First Nations people have been the custodians of this land for “untold thousands of years”, and as senior Wangan and Jagalingou cultural leader Adrian Burragubba (2018) continues to assert, it is the Yuree – or law – that is fulfilled through continuity of cultural practices on Country, including in the area of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. It is the first law that requires the First Nation to refuse to sign away Country for destruction.
Wangan and Jagalingou people – like Indigenous peoples around the world – have “unique and irreplaceable cultures … that contribute valuable and irreplaceable diversity to the human family” (Echo-Hawk 2010: 168). In 2015, Burragubba informed the Federal Court that Wangan and Jagalingou ancestral homelands, including the Doongmabulla Springs – a sacred site, from which the Rainbow Serpent, or Mundunjudra, travelled to shape the land – are under threat of devastation. It will be, he reiterated in 2020, a catastrophe every bit as destructive to the First Nation’s land and culture, and as hurtful to its people, as the blasting of the caves at the Juukan Gorge (Burragubba 2020).
The Adani project, including the proposed coal mine in the Galilee Basin, its railway line, and the Abbott Point port terminal, runs “from pit to port” across Country of four different Traditional Owner groups. What differentiates the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners in mounting their resistance is that they are the only Traditional Owner group who have refused consent to Adani and the state; and held that unwavering stance since 2012 when the group first unanimously rejected an agreement with Adani; despite eventually having what the Wangan and Jagalingou Council described in many media statements as a “sham” Indigenous Land Use Agreement thrust upon them (Brigg et al. 2017; Lyons 2019).
Not only is this because the scale of destruction of Wangan and Jagalingou homelands would far exceeds the impacts on any neighboring homelands – and that other First Nations had no business to enable this destruction through their agreements with Adani. Importantly, it is because this was an historic moment in which saying “no” could resonate with what Walter Echo-Hawk (2013) describes as the newly emerging international order of Indigenous rights. It was a call that touched those parts of the Australian community receptive to Aboriginal rights and concepts of climate justice.
The prior Aboriginal sovereignty, laws, and customs these First Nations rights advocates stand upon, as Irene Watson explains in Aboriginal Peoples, Colonialism, and International Law (2016), don’t owe their existence “to the crown”, thereby calling into question the foundations of the settler colonial order in Australia. This provides the core of the Wangan and Jagalingou movement towards self-determination and restitution. The “no means no” stance, emblematic of the defence of Country, rights, and people by the Wangan and Jagalingou Council, is a stand against the normalisation of dispossession and the involuntary assimilation of people into the modernised version of the colonial construct. This is not a challenge to individual projects, but to the very first principles of state developmentalism and legalised land appropriation.
To underscore the dubious legitimacy of the Carmichael project, and expose the “veneer of consent” that operates to mask the ongoing Indigenous dispossession engineered by the state and the mining corporation, as well as the staunch resistance to it, there has been a sustained public campaign (see https://wanganjagalingou.com.au/). This has focused on multiple declarations from the First Nation refusing the mine; a litigation strategy in the Federal and Queensland Courts to stop the compulsory imposition of mining leases and the validation of a post hoc land use agreement; lobbying of state and federal politicians to elevate the right of free prior informed consent in law, and avert Native Title Act amendments designed to salvage Adani’s invalid Indigenous Land Use Agreement (Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council 2017); and submissions to United Nations bodies highlighting the lack of genuine Free, Prior, and Informed Consent in Australian law and the racial discrimination embedded in the Howard-era Native Title Act.
The breach of customary law, cultural rights, and self-determination involved in Adani’s approach to Wangan and Jagalingou has been placed at the centre of the sustained opposition to the proposed mine, and the unassailable moral claims of the First Nation. This has garnered enormous public support in Australia, including a public petition supported by over 130,000 people (see https://me.getup.org.au/petitions/don-t-let-adani-build-their-huge-coal-mine-on-our-traditional-land), as well as international solidarity (see https://wanganjagalingou.com.au/the-path-of-resistance/), and negatively impacted on the social license for the mine and the availability of finance to the Adani corporation.
Adani’s Go-Ahead Signals Legal Bias and Racial Discrimination
That the project is proceeding with legal approvals from state and federal governments is not in itself proof that it enjoys uncontested consent. The whole process by which Indigenous “agreement” is constructed in mining projects in Australia is one built upon – as Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh describes in Negotiations in the Indigenous World (2016) – circumscribed rights, compulsion in “negotiations”, ingrained social and economic disadvantage, legal bias, and racial discrimination.
Why the project was held up by Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners for the best part of a decade is because the mining corporation and the state needed to maintain a semblance of consent, which they couldn’t demonstrate legally without an Indigenous Land Use Agreement. Threats of compulsory extinguishment of rights hung over Wangan and Jagalingou’s heads; but governments exercising such an authoritarian override of Aboriginal rights in the era of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is bad for the legitimacy of states and their partner corporations. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination raised still unresolved concerns about the approval for the mine (Grata Fund 2019).
Achieving “agreement”, then, when it was clearly not there, and would not be forthcoming, resulted in a “legal land grab”. It required the First Nation to be divided and its economic marginalisation exploited; the coercive powers of the Native Title Act had to be used; legal challenges had to be thwarted and laws changed; formal procedures had to be engineered by lawyers to concoct a decision; the Council’s political stance and its leaders had to be minimised, vilified, and marginalised in the wider community; and a taint of alleged external interference by environmental activists painted on to diminish the fundamental human rights arguments at the centre of Wangan and Jagalingou’s resistance (Howlett and Lawrence 2019; Lyons 2019). And to complete the picture, the key figure of the Wangan and Jagalingou resistance – senior cultural law leader, Adrian Burragubba – had to be bankrupted by Adani to assert dominance (SBS News 2019).
Finally, land had to be taken and native title rights extinguished for the critical infrastructure for mine operations (including an airstrip, rail terminus, workers village, washing plant, and power supply). As only the government can extinguish native title, the state became fully vested in the strategy to manufacture consent, for fear of a backlash over compulsory acquisition, or the failure of the mine to proceed.
While Adani had secured the coal tenements for the mine site in 2010, and gained mining leases in 2016, unquestionably without consent, it was the last piece in the puzzle – the extinguishment of native title for the critical infrastructure in 2019 under the cover of the contested Indigenous Land Use Agreement – that sealed the deal for Adani, and once again marginalised Wangan and Jagalingou resistance so as to preserve the order in the settler colony.
Or so it seemed – but it would betray the deeper Aboriginal rights cause if that had been enough to quell the resistance; or to bring a concession or consent from those First Nation defenders of Wangan and Jagalingou Country who vowed not to surrender (see https://wanganjagalingou.com.au/video-no-surrender/).
Wangan and Jagalingou Resistance leaves Adani an Industrial Pariah
So how did this group of Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners hold Adani back so long and turn a go-ahead project at the peak of the mining boom into an industrial pariah – a project on the edge of being a stranded asset as the international order of energy and finance turns decisively against it?
While the project may yet be propped up by “crony capitalism” – the various forms of state developmentalism operating in India and Australia – there will never be a story of Adani that can be told without the taint of corruption and abuse of power and of the First Nations’ resistance.
It was Wangan and Jagalingou who provided the legal cases that delayed the mine’s go ahead for so long. It was Indigenous rights activism that succeeded in directly disrupting this project. This is despite a legal and policy regime that is stacked against Aboriginal Australians. The expedited amendment of native title legislation by the federal government in June 2017 is evidence of this kind of rigging – accidently referred to by Senator Ian MacDonald as “the Adani bill” during debate in the Senate – which would, then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull personally assured Gautam Adani in 2017, “fix” the native title problem.
This First Nation resistance should not be conflated with the climate and environmental movements, including the banner of “Stop Adani”. Wangan and Jagalingou’s intervention was something unique. Its origins are in centuries old Aboriginal struggles, and it exposed the workings of the colonial project of dispossession involved in Adani and state efforts to secure the land. It showed what happens when a First Nation exercises their right to say “no”, and the rights violation that proceeds as a result. They also delayed a mine, creating scope for civil society mobilisation to gather momentum and the weight of numbers against it, leaving its future still unknown.
Understanding Wangan and Jagalingou, the colonial state that First Nations are up against, and what people fight to defend, is vital if we are to reimagine life for people and the planet, and to act in ways commensurate with a new order that embodies the full importance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It will also explain why this contest will not be ceded any time soon.
Wangan and Jagalingou have laid down a challenge to rethink fossil fuel extractivism and instead uphold Indigenous rights, relations to Country and Aboriginal cultural sovereignty as a first principle.
How would societies and economies adapt if the First Nations obligation to protect Country and keep it sacred, to embody a land ethic that sustains all life, and to abide by the living law – the law of the land – was made the governing imperative of the nation state?
What change would occur if, instead of the extractivist imperialism and dominance over nature that gave rise to the state, Australian society was led by an obligation to generations not yet born, as well as the dignity and equality of those present?
How would the political order be changed if the genuine Free, Prior, and Informed Consent of the Indigenous Peoples was required as a matter of law before corporations and states, in service to both profits and a resource-dependent populace, could undertake destructive and climate wrecking activities in this land of many First Nations?
This is what is encapsulated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: the need for a new compact between settler colonial nations and the First Nations, who did not freely cede their lands and sovereignty.
Legislating the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People into Australian law would allow the testing and development of rights-driven agendas on all counts, including extractive industries and the climate crisis; and could inculcate fundamental respect for human rights, including the right to life, which is radically threatened by accelerating global warming and the nihilism of ever increasing appropriation, commodification, and capital accumulation.
The practical consequences of this “new law” would be myriad and would be a systemic way to begin to ensure a rights-centred post-extractivist future.
That we all are now in the midst of multiple intersecting crises – to which the pangolin and the coal mine are symbolic – provides the impetus to enact this future. In doing so, the pursuit of conquest and expansionism could become relics of the past. Human rights could become the governing ethos of a global civil order; and the reparative justice necessary to fully retore the human rights of First Nations people could be realised.
Whether Australian communities and Governments choose to take lessons from this moment, and Wangan and Jagalingou’s unique, courageous and ongoing resistance, is yet to be seen.
We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians and Elders past, present and emerging, of the lands on which we live and work, and recognise these lands and the sovereignty of the First Nations have never been ceded. We specifically acknowledge the leaders and families of the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council.
The top image is of Murrawah Johnson, emerging First Nation leader and Wirdi Traditional Owner from Wangan Country (central Queensland, Australia), addressing a national conference on land rights.
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Kristen Lyons is a Professor of Environmental Sociology in the School of Social Science at the University of Queensland, and Senior Research Fellow with the US based Oakland Institute. Her research, advocacy and education sit at the intersection of people, the environment and development, including issues related to climate change and human rights in Uganda, Solomon Islands and Australia. She was part of a transdisciplinary research collaboration with the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council, and funded by the Global Change Institute, to understand the strategies and impacts of Indigenous rights led resistance to Adani’s Carmichael Mine.
Murrawah Johnson is a Wirdi person, part of the Wirdi-speaking people who have kinship ties to the broader Birragubba peoples. She is an emerging First Nation leader who comes from Wangan Country and is a Wirdi Traditional Owner. Murrawah has worked on Aboriginal rights litigation in the Federal Court and Supreme Court of Queensland; lobbying State and Federal governments, and international financial corporations; submitting to UN agencies and rapporteurs on human rights breaches; and building research and policy agendas. She also works on community-level Indigenous and climate justice strategies; and to facilitate First Nations solidarities in CANZUS countries.
Anthony Esposito is a political organiser with over 35 years experience campaigning at the interface of Aboriginal rights, land hand-backs and environmental protection. He has worked nationally in Indigenous rights and conservation initiatives throughout that time – and on the development of cooperation agreements between eNGO’s and First Nation groups. For the last six years he has been engaged as a campaign manager and strategic advisor to Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Family Council, the First Nation group at the forefront of resistance to Adani’s proposed mega coal mine and the opening up of the Galilee basin.