Last Monday was a morning like most others on the plains of central Queensland; out west of Clermont between the Carmichael and Belyando rivers. Dry and dusty, a cold night thawing into a day of hot and glaring sunlight.
There was something slightly different in the air though. Some Wangan and Jagalingou people, descendants of those who have inhabited this harsh landscape for tens of thousands of years, were preparing for ceremony. White ochre smeared across their bodies, the ritual they were about to undertake was a reclaiming of their traditional country.
After 15 years attempting to get native title over this land, three years in the courts disputing the right of Adani to build their massive proposed Carmichael coal mine nearby, after years of rallies and meetings with corporate and government figures, this is what it has come down to: “standing our ground” as they have said, putting their bodies in the way of vehicles carrying Adani workers from their work camp accommodation to the sites where the road and rail infrastructure for the mine is being built.
At a point a few kilometres from the work camp, where the road narrows over a cattle grid, the group assembled. Signs announcing the road closure were erected, as were flags and banners declaring the Wangan & Jagalingou’s intention to “Stand Our Ground” and “Evict Adani”. Wood was piled on the road and a ceremonial fire lit. Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owner Coedie McAvoy played the didgeridoo while others danced, and a smoking ceremony was performed to welcome onto country those of us who were there to support.
Before too long some less welcome guests had arrived. Adani security turned up and filmed proceedings, and soon enough Adani work cars and trucks were pulling up and turning around. A police officer from Clermont appeared after a couple of hours. One cop confronted by a group of 30 people and aboriginal people dressed for cultural ceremony; he wandered around making his presence known and then retreated first to the air conditioning of his car, then eventually back to town.
A bigger confrontation with police had been anticipated, but as the day wore it on it began to seem less likely. By the afternoon, the group was told police negotiators and a cultural liaison officer would be arriving the next day. The tents and sleeping bags that had been optimistically brought were unpacked, and dinner prepared. If police and Adani had supposed they were calling a bluff, they were to be disappointed. Wangan and Jagalingou had promised to stand their ground, and they were there for the long haul.
The next morning police negotiators did indeed arrive. They sat down by the fire with the father and son combo of Coedie and Adrian Burragubba, but negotiations were not exactly what these two had in mind. Instead they offered an ultimatum – they will leave when Adani does. To illustrate, they laid out a history of Adani’s misbehaviour towards the traditional owners, and a manifesto asserting aboriginal sovereignty.
The history of Wangan and Jagalingou’s interactions with Adani is long and complicated. They lodged a native title claim in 2004, which is still not resolved – surely due in part at least to the decade long struggle over Adani’s presence in their land. In 2012, when first approached, the entire Wangan and Jagalingou nation voted unanimously against the mine. But through years of pressure they were divided, and eventually in 2016 at a controversial meeting (boycotted and described as a “sham” by the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council) voted 294 to 1 in favour of the mine. For soundbite-happy politicians and mining PR agents, that figure is perfect for quoting – though it completely ignores the complexities of a process that lasted years and was always stacked against anyone opposing the mine.
But resistance from members of the Wangan and Jagalingou has been constant. In 2015, they undertook a global tour of major financial institutions, telling them not to bankroll a mine that does not have indigenous approval. In 2016 they launched the first of three court cases appealing the Indigenous Land Use Agreement signed at that infamous meeting.
They have faced heavy opposition from the company and the government – last year Adani opened bankruptcy proceedings against Adrian Burragubba over court costs, and the Queensland state government extinguished the Wangan and Jagalingou natitve title claim over the proposed Carmichael mine site. Taking on Adani has meant facing public criticism and internal divisions between family and clan. Even in the days leading up to this action there were still unforeseen setbacks to be negotiated – new COVID restrictions brought in 48 hours before the planned roadblock limited public gatherings to 30 people.
And yet here they were again, standing in front of Adani’s trucks. “My culture means caring for country” said Coedie. Of primary concern to them is the effect the mine’s vast water usage will have on the sacred Doongmabulla Springs and Carmichael River, through which water flows to nourish this dry brown country. It’s hardly the only environmental concern regarding the mine of course. There’s also the habitat that will be cleared, the gaping void itself; and the impacts of million tonnes of coal on an atmosphere already suffering the effects of climate breakdown, with scientists pleading to leave existing coal reserves in the ground.
For all these reasons, Wangan and Jagalingou were now in no mood to negotiate. The roadblocks remained, the sacred fire burned, and a group of people hung around under the gnarled ironbarks dotted around the dry and dusty roadside – ready to jump to action should any Adani vehicle attempt to cross. At three o’clock that morning, Adani cars had tried to break the roadblock and enter the nearby spot where Wangan and Jagalingou were camped. They were shooed away from both. The police, for now at least, were in a more conciliatory mood. After a long yarn at the fire, they retreated to their car 100 metres up the road, where they maintained a 24 hour presence.
This routine continued for several days. The little community at the cattle grid cooked, cleaned and chatted; gathered firewood and relaxed in the shade. A video of Monday morning’s roadblock was being shared around on social media by thousands of people, but out near the mine site we were out of range – sending people on long drives just to get images and video out to the world letting them know what was happening.
By Thursday, we had well and truly settled in. A women’s cultural ceremony was held on the Belyando River, complete with gathering of freshwater mussels for bush tucker. A couple of grey nomads heard about the action on the radio and thought they would drop in (the site was definitely not on the way to anywhere, and their little car certainly not the most suitable for those roads). They bought fresh paw paw and stayed to chat a while and take a photo.
By this stage Coedie was holding court, chatting for hours at a time with activists, visitors and police alike. Police were promising to line up a meeting with someone from the state government. The mood was buoyant, though on Thursday afternoon there was one interaction that hinted it might not stay that way forever. Before getting in his car to return to Bowen, senior constable Craig Sheppard came to address Coedie. “We’re not going to come and snatch you in the middle of the night,” he said, “but just remember, by being here you are breaking the law.”
The next morning we learned what he had been hinting at. At 10am, fifteen police cars rolled in, carrying about forty cops. The negotiators and aboriginal liaison were among them, but stood back while a more direct style of communication was pursued. Riot cops, presumably sweltering in their black uniforms and heavy gear, ran out to remove signs and surround the fire. Move-on notices were issued, but the Wangan and Jagalingou were not in a rush to vacate. Instead they stood face to face with police, telling them they were violating aboriginal lore and even the directives of the Queen. They did eventually back down and agree to leave, but not before performing another smoking ceremony and one last defiant dance by the fire.
There’s always something so powerful about aboriginal protest – the way it is tied not just to specific acts (like blocking a road), but to a whole way of being. Speaking language, performing ritual, singing and dancing, these all become powerful acts of resistance. In the same way, the idea of protecting the environment is not seen as an optional activity removed from ourselves. It is a part of living holistically, an acknowledgement that without the air, water and soil around us we cease to exist. “We don’t own this land,” goes the saying – “the land owns us”.
“You are interfering with my cultural practices, for me to continue with my culture” Coedie told the police as they closed in around the fire. But if we’ve learned one thing from these five days, and the preceding five years, it’s that the Wangan and Jagalingou’s resistance to the Adani mine is not something easily snuffed out.