Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners face legal proceedings under the Native Title Act initiated by Indian firm Adani, the company that wants to develop the Carmichael coal mine project in the Galilee Basin.

The Aboriginal custodians of the 200 square kilometre area to be mined by Adani have rejected an Indigenous Land Use Agreement submitted to them by the mining company, stating there is no amount of compensation that would be acceptable to them in exchange for the broad-scale destruction of native vegetation, landscape and water resources.

Instead, they are seeking to enact veto rights under Native Title, although the application lodged in 2004 for formal Native Title recognition has still not been finalised.

The group last week handed a Declaration of Defence of Country statement to the speaker of the Queensland State Parliament, Peter Wellington.

Spokesman for the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council, senior lawman and cultural educator Adrian Burragubba, told media his community has undertaken lengthy discussions around the proposal and decided collectively to reject Adani’s ILUA.

Legal experts have said the right to veto a project and reject compensation under an ILUA has never before been tested. This case will therefore be a test of the Native Title Act itself, and whether the goals of a mining company like Adani are judged to be more in the public interest than the rights of Traditional Owners to maintain land and heritage.

“We are gravely concerned about Adani and the Queensland Government’s desperate attempts to open up the Carmichael mine on Wangan and Jagalingou country,” Mr Burragubba wrote in an online petition for GetUp!.

“Our traditional lands are an interconnected and living whole; a vital cultural landscape. It is central to us as a People, and to the maintenance of our identity, laws and consequent rights.

“If the Carmichael mine proceeds it will tear the heart out of our country. The scale of this mine means it would have devastating impacts on our native title, ancestral lands and waters, our totemic plants and animals, and our environmental and cultural heritage.

“It will pollute and drain billions of litres of groundwater, and obliterate important spring systems. It will potentially wipe out threatened and endangered species. It will literally leave a huge black hole of monumental proportions in our homelands. These effects are irreversible. Our land will be “disappeared”.

“The direct impacts won’t be limited to our lands – they would have cascading effects on the neighbouring lands and waters of other Traditional Owners and other landholders in the region. The mine would unleash a mass of carbon into the atmosphere and propel dangerous global warming.”

If the Carmichael mine proceeds, it will be one of the biggest open cut black coal mines in the world. The project is also linked to the contentious Abbott Point coal facility expansion adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, as that would be where coal is transported to and loaded for export.

Adani has responded to the attempt at veto by taking legal action itself through the Native Title Tribunal, arguing the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Corporation that Mr Burragubba represents is not in fact the traditional owners the company needs approval from, and further, that Native Title rights should be effectively extinguished for the proposed mine area.

The clans Mr Burragubba is speaking on behalf of are, however, explicitly mentioned in the Indigenous Cultural Heritage Management section of the Carmichael mine environmental impact statement prepared by GHD, where it states: “The Project (Mine) and first 17 km of the Project (Rail) are located within the external boundaries of the Wangan and Jagalingou People registered native title claim.”

The company has signed ILUAs with other Aboriginal corporations, including in January this year an agreement with the Bulganunna Aboriginal Corporation for the rail and power corridors for the mine, associated works, haul roads and quarries. Under this agreement, Native Title is extinguished in those areas where works will proceed.

In November of last year, an ILUA was signed with Kyburra Munda Yalga Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC for the coastal area immediately south of Abbott Point, and again, Native Title has been extinguished under this agreement.

In his petition, Mr Burragubba said that if Adani is successful in getting the NTT to agree it does not need the family corporation’s consent to the ILUA – it will mean the company will be able to seek compulsory acquisition of the group’s Native Title rights.

“Adani is using its huge wealth and legal power against us while pretending to support our interests. We object in the strongest terms to their aggressive action to override us. We will not accept ‘shut up money’ so the mine can go ahead,” Mr Burragubba said.

“We know our battle is a hard one. It is not just the multi-billion dollar might of Adani that my people are up against. Both the former LNP Queensland Government and Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt approved Adani’s mine through the regulatory process.

“As first peoples, we will defend our rights as traditional custodians, protect our ancestral land and cultural health, and maintain our interests in and on our country. We will protect our land for the benefit of our people, the wider Australian community, and all of us who will be affected by the consequences of global warming.”

  • The Family Corporation has published an explanation of the cultural and environmental importance of the Galilee Basin here

The Native Title issue is not the only legal process the contentious project is currently subject to. On 15 March, hearing of objections to the mine under the Environment Protection Act and Mineral Resources Act commenced in Brisbane Magistrates Court and are expected to last for five weeks.

Separate litigation under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act against the Commonwealth approval of the mine is also pending, with the case listed for initial hearing 10-11 August before the Federal Court in Sydney.