Australia: In defence of country: An interview with Wangan and Jagalingou Council spokesperson Adrian Burragubba

Last Updated: 21 September 2019
Article by Paul Gregoire

The Queensland government on 29 August quietly extinguished native title over 1,385 hectares of Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) land and granted Adani freehold title over it, enabling the Indian mining giant to proceed with construction on its proposed Carmichael coalmine.

At the time, the W&J Family Council had a cultural sovereignty camp set up on their ancestral lands. Although, the Palaszczuk government didn't even see fit to inform them of the extinguishment until a day later, around the time Adani began trying to kick the "trespassers" off their own land.

Adrian Burragubba was camped out at the site, performing ceremonies. He and Murrawah Johnson have been the face of the W&J Family Council's eight year-long fight against the mine. And the Indian multinational recently stooped so low as to push for the bankruptcy of Mr Burragubba.

Adani was able to make this unprecedented and distinctly merciless move as it sought the $600,000 in outstanding legal costs resulting from the numerous court challenges Burragubba and the W&J Family Council brought against the plan to desecrate their lands.

The Adani amendment

The Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council has challenged the validity of the Indigenous land use agreement (ILUA) – which allows Adani to operate on the land – on a number of grounds, including that the agreement process was a sham, as well as that all native title claimants didn't sign off on it.

In February 2017, the Full Bench of the Federal Court ruled that the Noongar Native Title Settlement was invalid because not all claimants had signed off on the ILUAs that made up the agreement. Known as the McGlade decision, it meant that for ILUAs to hold, all claimants must agree to them.

This decision threatened the yet to be registered Adani ILUA, as not all claimants had voted in favour of it. So, in June 2017, the Turnbull government passed a bill to amend the Native Title Act. Dubbed the Adani Bill, this legislation reversed the ruling, so as to allow for the majority backing of ILUAs.

"Coercion, intimidation and threats"

The W&J Family Council asserts that its rights under the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have been violated, including the right to "free, prior and informed consent" regarding decisions to do with lands, territories, resources and cultural, intellectual and spiritual property.

The proposed Carmichael coalmine threatens the Doongmabulla Springs, which is a sacred water source for the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples. And the Adani mine would also open the way for another five to six coalmines to be established in the Galilee Basin.

The W&J Council has taken note of the High Court ruling in March this year, which saw the NT government ordered to pay $2.53 million in compensation to the Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples over the spiritual loss suffered due to the public infrastructure built upon their ancestral lands.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council spokesperson Adrian Burragubba about being classed as a trespasser on his own land, the prejudice inherent in the native title system and how he plans to continue to protect his people's land.

Firstly, a few weeks back, the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council set up a cultural sovereignty camp on the site where Adani plans to build the Carmichael coalmine. Mr Burragubba, what did the camp entail? And what was its purpose?

Our position has always been no to Adani's Carmichael mine. And we have said no to the ILUAs and the ILUA process. We had several legal cases challenging that process.

In our opinion, we did not have enough free, prior and informed consent, as to how the whole process was conducted with the right to negotiate, as well as the information that was given to the people about that ILUA process and the surrender of that native title area that is in question.

The Family Council had given me instruction to occupy that space – the surrender area. We were under the assumption that the Queensland government was intending to grant a lease over that area.

After all the effort trying to halt this project, the Family Council gave me instruction to go and do ceremony. We went there specifically to make peace with the land and the ancestors. That was our purpose to conduct ceremony.

So, we set up a camp on that surrender area for the purposes of cultural and spiritual ceremony. That was our reason. And we felt it was within our rights, because at that point it was unallocated state land.

And so, you had to leave the site?

My family left. My son stayed on for a while. But, he has since left that area because Adani's workers informed my son that he was trespassing.

On 29 August, the Palaszczuk government extinguished native title over your people's land: the area of the proposed site of the Adani mine. And the government failed to announce the move.

Rather than establishing a lease for a period of years, as they were initially to do, they've extinguished native title for all time. What are your thoughts on how the government acted in this matter?

We feel that the government has never consulted with the Wangan and Jagalingou Family Council on any matters relating to our land and our position on where we stand.

We are a representative body of that nation. We are the only representative body that speaks on matters relating to lore, custom and culture. There is no other contact.

And the government has never consulted with us on any matters, especially when Adani's second ILUA was voted down, when, in 2015, we gave a declaration of defence of country.

The government has never attempted to reach out to us as a group of people, and because of that, we feel insulted. We feel that the government has ignored our rights to free, prior and informed consent. We've made this known on several occasions.

We also applied to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – the United Nations – informing them that our free, prior and informed consent has not been held up in this case.

We've never been consulted by the Queensland government, and because of that, we feel that we've been robbed of our rights.

The government has extinguished our native title and given it to Adani as a freehold title: permanently extinguishing our native title and giving our land away to a private individual.

We're really concerned that the government may be setting a precedent now to just take the land off other Indigenous people, extinguish it completely and give it to mining projects, without complete consultation with traditional owners.

So, what would you say this tells us about the system of native title in this country?

The native title system and the processes are set up for extractive industries and projects like this so as to override the rights of the people. I was in the negotiation process. And it was fraught with coercion, intimidation and threats.

We were threatened by Adani's lawyers during that negotiation process, in that if we didn't take what they were offering, then we'd get nothing.

This is what is happening to First Nations people in this country. If they don't agree to what's being offered, they receive nothing, whatsoever, and the land can be extinguished and taken off them. This is what we are being threatened with. It's coercion, intimidation and threats.

A lot of our people don't understand the native title process. They don't understand what future acts are. They don't understand what past acts are. And they are just being coerced by these lawyers.

So, it's not a fair and just process, the native title process. I would call for – as I always have been – total reform of the native title legislation.

With the McGlade decision, the government amended the native title legislation to head off our court case involving the majority rule argument. The McGlade decision was a full bench ruling that it had to be a unanimous decision. It needed to be consensus.

But, because of Adani's ILUA, the federal government intervened in our court case and amended the Native Title Act. It overruled the full bench of the Federal Court.

The federal government has to grow up and deal with the legislation, which is old, outdated and no longer workable.

You've mounted numerous legal challenges against the mine. On 12 July, the full bench of the Federal Court dismissed the appeal you brought against the Adani ILUA, which provides that the Indian mining giant can set up on the land.

Is there room to mount a further legal challenge?

We're looking at various actions. And we've been following the Northern Territory Timber Creek action, with is about the loss of spirituality. Because the Doongmabulla Springs are a significant site for us.

This is the main reason we've been fighting this mine going ahead, because it will affect the Rainbow Serpent Dreaming-the Mundanjarra. The natural springs feed the Carmichael River. They feed the Belyando River. They're some very significant waterways.

Water is essential to our dreaming. All Aboriginal people in Australia have a story of a rainbow serpent or something very similar. It's not uncommon for First Nations people to band together and, under common law, have a right to argue on water.

So, that would be a significant thing that we'll be looking at doing, based on that Timber Creek ruling. Loss of spirituality would be something that we would want the government to compensate us for, because at no point did the government speak to us about our loss of spirituality.

These are things that I put to the court with my statement of claim, describing the totems, the moieties, the dreaming tracks and the stories of that area. And it was ignored in the court.

But, because of the Timber Creek case, it may set a precedent for not only us – the Wangan and Jagalingou people – but also for other nations to seek compensation from government for the destruction and loss of their spiritual connection to those areas.

Last month, you were forced into bankruptcy by Adani over legal costs. What do you think about this multinational actively pursuing this money?

This is a disgrace. It's despicable. And it is unheard of. This is the first time any company has bankrupt an Indigenous person for standing up for their rights.

How disgraceful is it for the Queensland government to allow a mining company to pursue that and execute it upon a First Nations person?

What's happening in this country is that mining companies can come here and override the rights of First Nations people. And governments standby and let these things happen and allow our rights to be trampled upon. That's just despicable.

The way I see it, I was born Aboriginal. We had nothing. I was born and we were in poverty. My parents had to leave the mission station because they had no money. My father had to leave the station, because he couldn't get work. He couldn't get money to feed his family, so he went to Brisbane.

This is the history of this country. This is the history of this state. This was how they oppressed our people. We didn't have any money. We didn't have any investments. There was no inheritance from my father or grandfather. There is nothing that we have that any anybody can take from us.

They've taken everything else. They took our land. They're trying to destroy our culture. They've taken away our heritage. And then they expect us to pay for standing up for our rights. This is unbelievable. This has never been heard of before in this country.

Why make an example of me? Why make this a public matter and humiliate me and my family? Why denigrate me in public through the media, when people are being bankrupt by the thousands every day? This is despicable.

Why would the government standby and allow this to happen? The government were complicit in this whole thing – this whole assimilation process. The forced assimilation and taking of our people off the land and not allowing us to assert our rights.

It's inhumane, because there is no moral or ethical reason why Adani would want to bankrupt me. I don't have anything in the first place.

All I have is my land, my lore and my culture. And that is what I have been fighting for. No one else can fight that. No one else can explain that.

I'm not supported by anybody. There are no green groups supporting what I'm doing. It is different from an environmental movement. I'm talking about our culture, our land and our stories.

Nobody wants to support that. Who thinks that any non-Aboriginal person out there wants to support an Aboriginal person to protect their culture and to protect their land? There are no people.

People like Warren Mundine have this wrong. There is no money that people are giving me.

And lastly, Mr Burragubba, how do you see this playing out from here? What are your plans from this point on?

We have to continue to make sure that our country is being taken care of and that this foreign mining company upholds the law. That's all we can do. And make sure that they don't damage our springs and our waterways. And that they don't decimate the area beyond recognition.

There are still lots of animals out there that are part of our culture and our lore. It's a living vibrant ecosystem.

And if this mine was to go ahead, it would be the leader in this whole process of undermining our rights and destroying our country beyond recognition, with the other mines that are planned to go ahead – Rinehart and Waratah.

That's the big picture. And we will continue to maintain our position: that we have the lore and the custom and the culture for that land. And we will continue to make peace with our ancestors and the land.

If it means that we have to go and live out there, then we will. That's what we aim to do if it comes to that.

I don't have a home. I don't have any money. I don't have anything. I just have my land.

If they're forcing me back onto my land, what else can I do, but go to the country of my ancestors, which they're going to destroy?

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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