Housing and Land Rights

The Aboriginal Wangan and Jagalingou Nation Is Standing Against a Disastrous New Coal Mine in Australia

Traditional Aboriginal landowners are waging a determined fight to stop an ecologically and culturally destructive project.
With support from the Australian government, the Adani corporation is pushing ahead with one of the world’s biggest and most controversial fossil fuel projects. The Wangan and Jagalingou people’s resistance is a symbol of the determination and creativity we need to achieve justice for Indigenous people and the climate.

The Wangan and Jagalingou people are an Aboriginal nation from central Queensland. Their country is part of Australia’s mythical dry and dusty outback. But as they know well, it’s also watered by the Doongmabulla Springs, whose waters bubble up to fill the Carmichael and Belyando rivers.

For the Wangan and Jagalingou, the springs are a sacred place. “This is the only source of water in our country that is eternal and continues to live and give life,” says Adrian Burragubba, a Wangan man and long-term Aboriginal land-rights activist. “So it’s essential to us to protect this place — because it is our dreaming, it’s our past, it’s our present, and it’s our future.”

It is on Wangan and Jagalingou country that Adani is hoping to build its Carmichael coal mine, one of the world’s biggest and most controversial fossil fuel projects. Over its projected sixty-year lifetime, the mine is expected to export 2.3 billion tons of coal and produce 4.7 billion tons of greenhouse emissions.

In 2019, Adani forced Burragubba into bankruptcy following a number of failed legal actions to halt the coal mine. However, he is not alone. Others have joined the fight against the Adani mine, including Burragubba’s son, Coedie McAvoy. McAvoy spoke to Jacobin to recount Adani’s treatment of the Wangan and Jagalingou people over the last eight years and to tell the story of his people’s tenacious resistance.

Defending the Land

By opening up a new coal seam in the Galilee Basin, Adani’s new mine would pave the way for more mines. Further warming is also likely to have disastrous bleaching effects on the Great Barrier Reef, which sits just offshore from the Abbott Point coal terminal where Adani would export their coal. And the IPCC warns that all existing fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground if we are to avoid the most catastrophic forms of climate change. For all of these reasons, environmentalists have fought against the mine for years.

For the Wangan and Jagalingou nation, the impacts of the mine are more direct. They see its huge open-cut pit as a desecration of their land. The mine’s immense water use — 12.5 billion liters a year, plus what they pump out of the pit — poses a direct threat to the area’s fragile water system and the nearby Doongmabulla Springs.

As McAvoy recounts, the Wangan and Jagalingou nation rejected Adani’s first advances out of hand:

Adani first approached us in 2012 to sign an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA). We rejected their offer, and they had to go back to the drawing board. In 2014, they came back and organized an authorization meeting to have their ILUA passed — but the group struck it down again.

However, Adani was not deterred. As McAvoy says, “after 2014, they used sneak tactics. They paid certain people in our group to split the group and essentially get their people to vote for an ILUA.”

A further meeting in April 2016 delivered a seemingly clear vote of 294 to 1 in favor of the mine. But the legitimacy of the meeting has been disputed ever since. It has been the subject of three failed court challenges launched by the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council.

With court options now exhausted, the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council still disputes the result. McAvoy says many people who voted at the meeting weren’t even Wangan and Jagalingou, and that they were paid to fill seats and vote yes.

Many others in attendance had no idea what was happening at the meeting. The people who organized the meeting, McAvoy explains, were paid according to the number of people they brought — and those attendees were instructed on how to vote. The meeting’s decision was not made with prior and informed consent.

At the same time, even though his family is among the most prominent and engaged members of the Wangan and Jagalingou nation, they weren’t allowed to attend. “I was refused entry,” McAvoy recalls. “So our family boycotted that meeting, and we’ve been fighting that sham meeting ever since.”

Native Title

Years spent battling Adani in the courts and media have taken their toll on members of the Wangan and Jagalingou nation. McAvoy’s father has been one of the most prominent opponents of the mine. As McAvoy explains:

It has been a big strain on our family for the last six years. He has been character assassinated a number of times in the media. . . . In the last three years of fighting Adani, my father has lost two brothers and a son. It’s taken a big toll — so he has had to stand back and recuperate. But we find the courage from somewhere to keep pushing because we’re a strong family and we believe in what’s right and what’s just.

Meanwhile, the Wangan and Jagalingou nation has suffered the kind of internal divisions that are sadly common to disputes under native title laws. These laws grant Indigenous people limited rights to their traditional lands, subject to a high burden of proof and legal processes that often run long after the traditional owners who initiated them have passed away. As McAvoy puts it:

The native title system has done what it’s supposed to do — it’s designed to divide and conquer, to take out the people that oppose mining, isolate them, and prop up subservient traditional owners. It’s designed for mining companies, not Aboriginal people. Even when you get native title you get nothing; all you get is the ability to camp and hunt on your country with permission from a pastoralist.

The fight over Adani’s Carmichael mine has been the most prominent land-rights battle in Australia in recent years. Yet more than twenty years after the Wangan and Jagalingou nation lodged their native title claim, it has yet to be resolved — surely in part due to Adani’s mine proposal.

There have also been several extraordinary government interventions. In May 2017, with support from Labor, then attorney general George Brandis intervened to amend the Native Title Act. This move came after the Federal Court overturned an agreement between the West Australian government and traditional owners, on the basis that all representatives of the relevant Indigenous clan or claim group had not signed it.

The Coalition regarded that decision as potentially setting a precedent that could support the Wangan and Jagalingou claim against Adani’s ILUA. The change rammed through by Brandis makes it a lot easier for mining companies and others to manufacture ILUAs with an apparent majority by excluding noncompliant Indigenous representatives. Brandis encouraged the judge presiding over the Wangan and Jagalingou case to postpone any decision against Adani until he had changed the law.

Following this move, in August 2019, the Queensland State Government extinguished Wangan and Jagalingou’s native title claim over the areas Adani has leased — an unprecedented move in the state’s native title history.

“Standing Our Ground”

In 2019, the Wangan and Jagalingou nation lost its third appeal in the Federal Court. Adani then began bankruptcy proceedings against Adrian Burragubba. McAvoy insists that legal setbacks were never going to deter his family from standing up to Adani:

Wangan and Jagalingou resistance has never been just about the courts — the courts are a Western-style system that doesn’t really recognize our culture and law . . . they are corruptible because a politician can sway a judge’s opinion.

Several members of the Family Council travelled the world in 2015, meeting with major financial institutions to dissuade them from bankrolling a project that did not have the approval of traditional owners. This pressure, combined with poor forecasts about the mine’s economic viability, means that Adani has so far failed to secured backing for its Carmichael mine.

Nevertheless, Adani has gone ahead with a self-financed, significantly downsized version of its original proposal. With the mine fully approved and work well underway, the resistance movement needed to change its strategy.

In September 2019, McAvoy set up camp on Adani’s mine lease, clearing a corroboree ground. Adani currently holds the land as a pastoral lease. Under Australian law, this means it must be shared among graziers and native title applicants and holders.

McAvoy’s first two stays at the camp were short and solitary. But, in August 2020, he returned with a group of Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners, other Aboriginal people, and supporters, blocking the road to the camp for Adani’s workers at a point where it narrowed for a cattle grid and lighting a ceremonial fire. For four days, the group stayed in place at the cattle grid, forcing Adani’s traffic to use a back way to access the work sites. It wasn’t simply a blockade, as McAvoy points out:

There are other ways of blocking a road, but I intentionally built that fire as a symbol of spirituality, strength, and power. A fire is alive and has a spiritual meaning which makes it a lot harder for police to deal with it.

“Standing our ground” is the name the Wangan and Jagalingou people have given to the new phase of their campaign, reflecting both the militancy of the camp but also their connection to the land under their feet. This is where culture and protest intertwine; it’s where connection with country stands arm in arm with protecting country.

During the blockade, police negotiators tried to engage in long conversations by the fire. However, the Wangan and Jagalingou told them they would stay until Adani left. On the fifth morning, over forty Queensland police arrived to forcibly evict the group, shoveling away their sacred fire and reopening the blocked road.

Determined Resistance

Coedie McAvoy, along with a group of other Aboriginal people, has spent much of the last six months camped out on Adani’s lease. Their purpose is twofold: to disrupt Adani’s operations and to practice the culture they are trying to protect. “I’m finding the more I stay here, the more I’m building a connection to the area, to the animals and birds, and to the trees,” McAvoy explains. “It gives me a lot more drive to fight this mining company.”

It has been a long and hard struggle for the Wangan and Jagalingou people, who have stood side by side with a mass movement of environmentalists. Yet there have been small but important victories. All the financial institutions that the Wangan and Jagalingou representatives spoke to on their global tour have ruled out working with Adani, along with nearly a hundred other companies. Adani has delayed and downsized its mine, and the currently approved project is just a fraction of what Adani had originally proposed.

For Adani, the Carmichael mine is not just about the coal. Previously focused on shipping, the company has been predominantly based in India, where it was founded. The Carmichael project represents both a significant expansion into a foreign country and a complete pit-to-port operation that it hopes will generate significant profits.

Adani’s Australian cheerleaders — the Queensland National Party in particular — have a strong ideological motivation for supporting the mine. While the economic benefits would be minimal, for them it would represent a symbolic victory for fossil fuel capital over “greenies” and the rising green energy and service-based sectors of the economy. It would also be a victory over First Nations people.

For the Wangan and Jagalingou people, the struggle goes on. In May 2021, Coedie McAvoy hopes to bring people from across Australia to his country. He has helped to plan the Tour De Carmichael — a bike ride from the Gregory Highway to the site of Adani’s mine. “The aim,” he says, “is to create a mass cycling event whilst giving a guided cultural tour hosted by traditional owners. Anyone that doesn’t like Adani’s destructive mine is welcome to join in.”

Beyond this, McAvoy is optimistic and determined: “I envision that we will have the strength and ability to outlast Adani.” His struggle — and that of the Wangan and Jagalingou — is a reminder of how far we have to go to achieve justice for Indigenous people and the climate. It also demonstrates the deep link between climate action and Aboriginal sovereignty, both of which face the politically powerful mining industry as one of their key opponents.

As the realities of climate breakdown become clearer, campaigns like the one against Adani will be crucial, not only to halt ecologically and culturally destructive projects but to revive Indigenous traditions, knowledges, and practices that may prove vital for all our survival. And for ecological activists, Aboriginal sovereignty campaigners, and their supporters, the Wangan and Jagalingou people are a symbol of the determination and creativity we need to win.

Andy Paine is a writer, broadcaster, and activist. He has spent much of the last three years in central Queensland organizing resistance to the construction of Adani's Carmichael mine.

Photo: Andy Paine

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