Wangan and Jagalingou law and order
By Adrian Burragubba
Published as the Prologue to The Coal Truth: The fight to stop Adani, defeat the big polluters and reclaim our democracy, by David Ritter. June 2018
I AM A WANGAN AND JAGALINGOU PERSON. I learnt the ways of my people from my father and my older brothers. I was taught that the sacred beliefs of my culture are based on where the song lines run through our country. The song lines connect me to my people’s country and to the trees, plants, shrubs, medicines that we know are on country, waterholes, creeks, rivers and animals – all have a special religious place in our land and culture and are connected to it.
Our spirits and the spirits of our ancestors travel above, through and under the ground of our country. They dwell there indefinitely. Harming the environment, the country, the landscape, the ecosystems, the dependent species, harms my sacred beliefs and spiritual connections.
I, along with other Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners, through our Traditional Owners Family Council, have sustained a strategy to resist the push by Adani Mining and the Queensland government to open up the Galilee Basin – our traditional lands – with the largest proposed coal mine in the history of Australia, and one of the largest in the world.
At the heart of our struggle is the demand for respect for us as first peoples, for our country and our rights, all long missing in relations between our people and the Settler Society.
The confrontation over the Galilee is the distillation of our peoples’ struggle with the land grabbing and colonisation that has continued since day one of the British assertion of sovereignty over our lands and peoples – an assertion that we never ceded to and one that proceeds every day, still without our consent.
Wangan and Jagalingou are the Traditional Owners of most of the area of the Galilee Basin, including the proposed Carmichael mine site. For untold thousands of years, we have been custodians of this land and it is our responsibility to protect our land, water, people, history and totems. Our Yuree, our law, is the bee, or Kub-bah in our traditional language.
Our sacred connection starts at our place of birth. There, the child is given a representative animal, bird or reptile totem, either a social totem or a dreaming totem. They are forbidden to eat such creatures or their eggs.
In our country, spiritual ancestors come up from under the ground and travel in and through the land at sacred sites associated with the Rainbow Serpent, known as the Mundunjudra. The Rainbow Serpent has power to control Wangan and Jagalingou sites where our people are born into their bigan (totem). This has been so since the beginning of the creation period.
This ancient connection, through to the present, endows us with the knowledge of our traditional ownership and of our distinct identity as Wangan and Jagalingou peoples – the Weirdi-speaking people – the Aboriginal peoples of the Galilee.
Wangan and Jagalingou have in the past exercised and enjoyed our customary laws and practices in our lands, including the area of the Carmichael mine. We still do so to this day. We want to in the future, but this mine will damage our rights and offend our spiritual beliefs because of the destruction it will cause to the land and the waters on the mine site and around it, and also the wider region.
The impacts of the mine and the various leases are not limited to the places on which they sit; especially because of the way water flows through and connects vast interlocking landscapes. Cascading effects will be felt on the neighbouring lands and waters of other Traditional Owners and other landholders in the region. Our neighbouring tribes also have similar stories of their connection through the Water Spirit, referred to regularly as Moonagudda or Mundunjuda. We will not subject our Country and that of others to ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Our law (and lore) embodies a ‘seamless web of cultural landscape’ – this is our Country; and it must be cared for and managed.
‘Opening up’ the Galilee to mining will forever damage Wangan and Jagalingou sacred country. If the Carmichael mine proceeds it will tear the heart out of our country: destroying our ancestral homelands, the cultural landscape and our heritage; causing irreversible and major damage to the environment; and unleashing a mass of carbon into the atmosphere, propelling dangerous climate change.
One of the major reasons we have never consented to an ‘Indigenous Land Use Agreement’ with Adani for the Carmichael mine is that there was insufficient honest explanation and acknowledgement of the adverse and irreversible impacts on the values of our country. It is not possible to give free, prior and informed consent to any developments without the major, cumulative and long-term effects of those projects on our natural and cultural values being properly identified. And because we know what this mine of mass destruction means, we will not agree to it.
The company was never fully forthcoming with us and so showed their dishonesty. And we have no confidence in government regulation to maintain our country, nor adequately cover the value of our country as an interconnected and living whole – as a vital cultural landscape. This is central to us as a people, and to the maintenance of our identity, laws and consequent rights. We remain implacable in our opposition to the destruction that would befall our country if this or any other major coal mine were to proceed.
It is our recognised right under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to give or withhold our consent to developments on our lands. At no time has the state or Adani or any other mining company received our free, prior and informed consent for the issuing of mining leases. They have been granted over our rejection and resistance; and it is an incontrovertible fact that they are issued at the expense of our rights.
Indeed, every time we have said no, Adani has worked to override our decision and pursue their outcomes through the national native title regime. And the government has backed them. This is a system built on the notorious Ten Point Plan, found by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to be discriminatory towards Traditional Owners and lacking in the fundamentals of the right to free, prior, informed consent and self-determination. These are rights and protections sanctioned by international law and declarations but find little foothold in the regimes and policies of successive Australian governments, federal and state.
The Queensland government, which holds the ultimate authority with its power to compulsorily acquire our land and rights, favours securing the interests of mining companies and prospective workers over our refusals. Nothing has changed for our people except the way in which our lands are appropriated and our people subjugated.
So, we fight. We fight to protect our connection to country and prevent damage to our ancient heritage. We fight for our rights to free, prior, informed consent; to our own economic development; and to protection of our country and culture.
This mine will forever interfere with our way of life, culture and traditions, and open the way for the complete devastation of the Galilee Basin – the place from which our people have originated since creation – and our lands and waters. It will have negative impacts on our social, cultural and economic structures. We know this because of the way Adani has treated us. We know this because of what is proposed for the future. The company and governments have not listened to us and do not respect our views. We have seen damage already in country under so-called cultural heritage management plans, which are not much more than permits to destroy our ancient heritage. Adani and the state government have not offered anything meaningful to protect and secure the future of our country and our sacred connection. The price Adani is asking us to pay includes silence in the future – not being able to object to anything they do.
This runs against our rights as Aboriginal people – rights described in the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia is a signatory. We assert our rights and object to the way in which they are systematically overridden in the process by which the state grants mining interests. The courts and tribunal are then restricted by the law to an administrative framework in which the original law of the land, our law, and the order of our societies is incorporated only to the extent that the centuries-old colonial project can maintain its pre-eminence.
This is life for Aboriginal people in a Settler Society – a colony that came and never went. But while the legal system may weigh against us, when we say No, we mean No.And so, we fight.
We fight against the power and wealth of a massive global corporation and a state and federal government. We fight against capital funds that roll in and out of investments, indifferent to the pain and suffering of our people and the destruction of our homelands.
We fight against imposed democratic forms – a system that barely upholds the rights of the community’s own citizens, much less our rights as Aboriginal peoples. Rights to our law and custom, which don’t owe their existence to any other power; rights to our inheritance, which long predates the migrant communities from the First Fleet to the latest arrival; and rights to determine our own future and relationships in this land.
We are knowingly oppressed by wealthy companies and powerful government agencies that bank on the fact we cannot afford to sustain endless battles when the cards are already stacked against us. We face the invidious choice of co-option and meagre rewards, or social exclusion and economic marginalisation. There is no restitution that would come close to empowering us from the wealth of the land that others have grown rich on. There is no land justice.
Adani and miners have the benefit of a system that does not respect our rights as Aboriginal peoples – the right to our lands and resources; the right to conservation and protection of the environment; the right to practise our law and customs; the right to live in freedom, peace and security. Governments have not afforded respect for us, our country or our rights.
We stand opposed to the Adani Carmichael mine because of its devastating impacts on our native title, ancestral lands, environment and cultural heritage. As first peoples, we are defending our rights as Traditional Owners and custodians to protect our ancestral inheritance and maintain our rights in and on our Country.
The association of Wangan and Jagalingou with the Rainbow Serpent (the Water Spirit) promotes the collective right to live freely as distinct peoples with our own cultural values. We Wangan and Jagalingou people believe that any damage to the integrity of our moiety dreaming would have catastrophic consequences for all Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the region. Any damage, regardless of the perpetrator, attracts sanctions from other members of the regional Aboriginal societies.
The law is you don’t kill your totem whether it is an animal or a tree. Our law protects us and maintains social order. Offences against our law and custom are offences of strict liability. They are serious but remain unrecognised in Australian law. The forms of customary punishments once included death, corporal punishment (including spearing), shaming and banishment. Because such punishments no longer exist does not mean the offences are no longer serious.
The Carmichael mine site is part of a large number of sacred and archaeological sites that exist in the country of the Wangan and Jagalingou people. Many sites are associated with Ancestor dreaming totems and other totemic beings that manifest through certain natural species. The significance of the totemic beings, rituals, ceremonies and ancestor dreaming associated with the Galilee are essential to our identity, our law and the order of our society. They give life to our claim for our rights in land. Our ancestors are still alive in the land.
The Queensland government knows about this but will not help protect our sacred lands and it does not speak of what it knows. Adani is only interested in the mine and money and does not respect our culture and religion. Adani’s leader will not show us the respect of talking with our elders and law people.
We did not consent, we have not consented, we will never consent to the destruction of our country for Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, or any others, on our ancestral lands. It would be against our law and order.