A couple of Thursdays ago, the Queensland government quietly extinguished the Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owners’ native title over 1385 hectares of land that includes the Carmichael mine site. Families have been camped on the land near the mine site, anticipating forced removals. Already, they have been accused of trespassing by Adani. Their resistance to the Carmichael coalmine and to reclaiming their lands has traced a long and highly visible journey over the last six years.
In India, home to the Adani company, Indigenous voices rarely reach media stations, the national public sphere, or the international global justice forums. One exception is the Dongriya Kondh remote Indigenous community in Niyamgiri hills near the east coast of the Indian peninsula, called the ‘real Avatar tribe’ by Survival International, and their heroic resistance to bauxite mining on their sacred forest-hill. The movement drew the attention of international indigenous rights groups, and the Dongriya Kondh travelled to London to confront shareholders of Vedanta Mining Ltd and its dealings in Niyamgiri. In many cases, land acquisitions from Indigenous and peasant communities for private mining projects and thermal power plants occur among conflicts and violence by the state, police and company officials in collusion, and goes largely unnoticed by the national media in New Delhi.
But in Adani’s new playground, Australia, and particularly Queensland, the Wangan and Jagalingou people have been able to put up one of the most sustained resistances in and out of courts to the proposal for a coalmine on their land, for which they claimed native title in 2006. They have been able to form anti-fossil fuel solidarities with First Nations people in Canada and the United States, who have been fighting large extractive projects and pipelines on their land. They have been able to have their voice heard by the United Nations, and global financial institutions.
And yet, the global solidarity and the strong public support in Australia against the Carmichael coalmine could not save them from facing an imminent loss of their land – land that of course was already stolen from them.
This bulldozing over Indigenous cultural values, sacred sites and native land takes on a slightly different meaning depending on which horizon we look at. First is the occurrence of the phenomenon itself more broadly – of bulldozing across Aboriginal rights and land across the Australian geography, often using unjustifiable economic rationale. In Victoria, three hours northwest of Melbourne, 800-year-old birthing trees of the Djab Wurrung traditional owners are at risk of being felled for the Western Highway. Community has set up a Djab Wurrung embassy at the location, and protestors have held a presence at the site for over a year; it’s a protest that continues to grow in strength and numbers. In New South Wales, the federal government has deemed potential jobs in a sunset industry – for the Shenhua watermark coalmine – more important than the protection of heritage values of the traditional lands of the Gomeroi people. The jobs myth of the Adani-owned Carmichael mine is well established, but continues to be peddled by state and federal governments alike.
The other perspective is the transnational chain of human rights violations the finalisation of the Adani project through handover of Wangan and Jagalingou land unleashes. In addition to the global risk of climate change from burning Carmichael coal (and coal from the other mines that might kick-start after it) are several specific cases of impending injustice, some grittier, some more historic, some poorer and more disenfranchised than the rest. We can trace this chain of human rights across the land and sea pathways along which this coal will be extracted, transported, shipped, burnt and supplied as electricity.
The fate of entire countries in the Pacific Islands hang on the brink as sea levels rise and yet Australia’s affinity to coal continues unbounded. Locally, there are also the professions of, for instance, farmers in the Galilee Basin and Reef tourism operators, which are threatened by climate change and its impacts on those regions, not to mention the increasing droughts and cyclones. In India, which is already facing impacts of climate change, severe water crises and record air pollution, the poor, who have been time and again used as the moral reason for the Carmichael mine, will be the worst affected by climate change because those communities have the least ‘coping capacity’ (resources, power, wealth).
But more specific to the Adani coal-trail, the land for the thermal power plant in the Godda district of the resource-rich state of Jharkhand was forcefully taken by the state from Indigenous and peasant communities. Widespread resistance protests were violently crushed. The irony of these actions – of the government acting in the interest of a corporation – are compounded by the fact that no-one in Jharkhand will benefit from the thermal power generated from Adani coal shipped in from Australia. The final destination in the Carmichael mine’s coal trail is likely to be Bangladesh, one of the most low-lying and climate change–prone countries in the world who signed a memorandum of understanding with Adani in 2017 to purchase power rather expensively from the private corporation. When and if Adani’s coal, dug out of the native land of the Wangan and Jagalingou people in the Galilee Basin in northwest Queensland goes travelling its transnational pathway of production, it will, along its way, trample all over the human rights of all of these people and the environments that sustain them.
If the Queensland government had not taken away the rights of the Wangan and Jagalingou to their lands, it could have demonstrated some commitment to reconciliation for both past and future injustice. But in giving those lands away to a corporation – a corporation that has repeatedly crushed and exhausted sustained resistance from traditional owners who are now dealing with bankruptcy in addition to the theft and abuse of their land – they have unreconciled the past and the future.