THE WANGAN and Jagalingou people of what is today known as Central Queensland tell a story about their founder, the rainbow serpent Mundunjudra. At the beginning of time, the Great Spirit made water fall from the heavens and the sun shine from above. The Mundunjudra came up from beneath the earth and moved through the land, creating the rivers, valleys, mountains, and life-giving waters of the Doongmabulla Springs. Doongmabulla means “place of many waters.” The vast wetlands include 187 spring vents that nourish all life. The Wangan and Jagalingou people were created from the springs. Their totem animals—the kangaroo, the honeybee, the emu, the goanna, and the eel—were created there.
Today the Mundunjudra sleeps in the valley. If the springs dry up, it’s believed that the serpent will awaken and unleash disasters.
CENTRAL QUEENSLAND is coal country. Coal defines and dominates this region. There are coal centers and coal monuments and massive piles of coal. Six coal trains pass us by as we drive into the remote interior; each has twenty carriages piled high with coal.
We’re driving west from the lush coastal city of Rockhampton to the Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin, about 335 miles. The mine sits five miles east of the Doongmabulla Springs. The initial proposal from the Adani corporation entailed six open-pit and five underground mines, promising an annual yield of 60 million tons of coal. Over its proposed lifetime of sixty years, the Carmichael coal mine would open up the Galilee Basin to eight additional mega-mines. It would use 270 billion liters of water, draining the springs.
The surrounding areas have been heavily mined by corporations such as Rio Tinto, but the Galilee Basin remains pristine. Persistent opposition by the Wangan and Jagalingou people, as well as a grassroots network known as the Stop Adani campaign, has managed to slow the construction of the Carmichael mine. Over one hundred major investors have pulled out. In twelve years, only one pit has been dug.
My mum’s cousin Nigel Dsouza is driving and his wife, Lata Krishnan, has joined us too. Nigel has spent decades working in community-based Aboriginal child welfare and aged services. When I was a kid growing up in Sydney, he was working with the Pintupi people in the Western Desert to set up a community health service. He wrote me letters about children who did not have enough to eat. He used to call me Stargazer, because on long car trips at night, I loved to lean my head back and look out at the night sky.
Near the mining town of Emerald, the landscape becomes flat and sparse, with stretches of red dirt, eucalyptus gum, and low shrubs. We take our chance to refuel, as there are few gas stations in the remote outback. After Clermont, the gravel road to the mine site takes about two hours. Long shiny trucks send up clouds of dust that turn everything white. We see willy-willies, small tornado-like dust storms that spiral off into the distance.
Opposite the open-cut pit is an encampment, where the Wangan and Jagalingou man Coedie McAvoy maintains presence. At the entrance to the camp, a red, white, and black warning sign reads: WANGAN AND JAGALINGOU SITE. AUTHORISED ACCESS ONLY. CEREMONY IN PROGRESS. Farther up a hill are a kitchen, communal spaces, a first aid tent, and a cell phone tower. Above the main dwelling flies a yellow flag with images of an emu footprint and eel. Inside is a bora ring—a ceremonial circle marked by stones—with a sacred fire that Coedie has been tending continuously for 212 days. It’s not a protest—Coedie is clear about that. He is practicing the Waddananggu ceremony on his lands. Waddananggu means “the talking.” It is a space for conversations among First Nations people about protecting their country.
Wangan and Jagalingou people are permitted by law to practice traditional culture on their lands, even though the mine site sits on a pastoral lease.
Indigenous struggles against the coal mines and power plants are part of a long and enduring battle against colonialism that has lasted centuries.
But cultural ceremonies are not compatible with mining. “Mining and Aboriginal culture will never coincide with each other,” says Coedie. “As much as people want to try and spin it that way, all they are doing is stealing resources for profit.”
It is baking hot in late March. Even in this sparse landscape, the natural world is present. Behind the camp is an old-growth gidgee forest. Falcons, eagles, and hawks cut through the sky. In sacred birthing trees, Wangan and Jagalingou women bury the placentas of their children in the bark. The nearby Doongmabulla Springs is an oasis, with unique species of waxy cabbage palm, brolgas, emus, and black-throated finches.
We have to leave, as we have a four-hour drive back to Emerald, and as the motel owner warns, no one goes on these roads after dark “because of the ’roos.” An hour later, we have less than half a tank of gas. Nigel turns off the air conditioning and drives slowly to conserve fuel. He monitors the fuel gauge, time, and distance to the Clermont BP station. We make it just before the gauge hits empty, but by now it’s dark and we have to drive another hour with the risk of kangaroos bounding across the highway.
I lean my head back and gaze out at the immense night sky. I dream of this land before the white man came.
MANY ABORIGINAL families used to live on the banks of Sandy Creek, a few miles outside of Clermont. When the Woorabinda Mission was set up in 1927, they were forcibly relocated, banned from speaking their Wirdi language and following their traditional customs. Six years before Adani arrived with its mine proposal, the Wangan and Jagalingou people submitted a native title claim over their land. The process was fraught. Native title required them to show that they maintained traditional beliefs and customs or had a continuous connection to their land since colonization, despite having been prevented from doing so.
Over the following eighteen years, various amendments were made to the claim, with members added or removed. The native title bureaucracy draws arbitrary lines. Boundaries of language groups defined by state anthropologists are often based on colonial demarcations. There are discrepancies between what Aboriginal groups know, what anthropologists say, and the colonial records held by the state. For instance, during a federal trial in December 2019, state anthropologists and genealogists testified to the Native Title Service that the Wangan and Jagalingou people were more accurately described as Clermont-Belyando people. The claimants agreed to amend and resubmit as a Clermont-Belyando claim, but said they still identify as Wangan and Jagalingou people.
The native title claim was not approved, but because it was registered, Adani had to negotiate with the traditional owners under an Indigenous Land Use Agreement to push forth its coal project. In meeting after meeting, the Wangan and Jagalingou people rejected the agreement. Adani worked to split the group and called a meeting that they stacked with people from outside the community, claiming a vote of 294 to 1 in favor of the mine. The Queensland Labor government extinguished native title on a critical part of the mining lease, and handed it over as freehold title to Adani.
Coedie sees the once celebrated native title system as acting at the behest of extractive industries. “Native title was not set up for Aboriginal people,” he says. “Native title was set up to protect mining companies.”
COEDIE’S FAMILY came from the Clermont area. In 1918, during a wave of forced removals, Coedie’s great grandfather fled west to a town called Blackall with his brother, wife, and son, Coedie’s grandfather, who was seven years old. They were captured at gunpoint, loaded onto wagons, and taken to the Cherbourg Mission. Coedie’s grandfather, known as “Breakaway Ernest” because he kept trying to escape, was released with his children to Brisbane in 1957. Coedie grew up there. He heard his elders’ language, a creole of Biri, Gangulu, and Wirdi.
In 2019, Coedie embarked on a project to learn and revitalize Wirdi, one of more than seven hundred languages once spoken across the continent. He and his niece, Chenoa Lovell, traveled to the archives in the capital city of Canberra to find Wirdi recordings. They practiced the words and phrases with Wangan and Jagalingou elders who still spoke a bit of Wirdi. In a slow and painstaking process, they reconstructed the language, learning the complex sentence structures and verb and pronoun systems. They discovered a vocabulary rich in words to describe land, animals, and the natural world. Among the words in Coedie’s Wirdi dictionary are munggu (mountain), banggarra (blue tongue lizard), barbira (echidna), gundulu (emu), and gagubarra (kookaburra).
When the Queensland police approach Coedie at his camp, he addresses them in Wirdi. “They just trip when I start speaking Wirdi,” he says, laughing. To communicate, they must find a Wirdi translator, which of course is impossible because there are no native speakers left. Coedie is occupying his lands legally, so the police cannot remove him.
From the beginning, Coedie and other Wangan and Jagalingou people have opposed the mine. The Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners Council, represented by Coedie’s father, Adrian Burragubba, and then youth leader Murrawah Johnson, fought Adani in the courts. The council appealed to international bodies like the United Nations. Burragubba has used domestic cultural heritage legislation. And they have organized. Last September, Coedie hosted a webinar, where he appealed to other Aboriginal nations and non-Indigenous allies to help them maintain their vigil. “Ngaya Waddana Ngadyu yamba nani mundu,” he said—“I am speaking from my homelands.” “Gundarrana Ngaligu Binda—We’re fighting to live.”
THE SANTHAL PARGANAS lie some two hundred and thirty miles north of Calcutta in the state of Jharkhand. The Santhals are the Adivasi, or Indigenous peoples, who have occupied eastern India for millennia. The state is home to abundant forests and a dozen major rivers. The landscape is verdant with hills, jungle, and paddy fields.
Over five years, Adani cleared a large section of lands owned and farmed by Santhal people in a district called Godda. Here they are building a power plant that will be fueled by 5 to 6 million tons of coal from the Carmichael mine each year. Plant operations will require 36 billion liters of water from the Ganges and local river systems. Adani made an agreement with the state government to acquire 917 acres of land in the area, but due to local opposition it has only been able to get just over half of that.
On the north side of the plant is the larger village of Motia, which is home to upper-caste Hindus and lower-caste landless farmers. Though there was initially significant opposition to the plant in this village, most people eventually gave over their land in exchange for compensation—or had it forcibly taken.
Just south of the plant are the Santhal villages of Mali and Gangta. The families live in colonies of mud houses with palm-thatched roofs that face onto their fields. The fertile cropland—with rice, wheat, corn, chickpeas, grass pea, and linseed, among other varieties—produces three annual harvests, a main source of sustenance for farmers and their families. When the Santhals die, they are buried in the fields they sow. The land is considered sacred.
The lands of the Santhal people are legally protected by the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act and a more recent Land Acquisition Act that restricts the takeover of private rural land for industry. But like in Central Queensland, the Jharkhand government assisted Adani to override the protective legislation by declaring the plant to have a “public purpose.” Villagers who tried to attend the social impact assessment hearings were physically beaten by police. In March 2017, district officials organized meetings to gather the required 80 percent consent. The Santhal villagers boycotted. Some allege that the officials collected forged and invalid signatures to claim 84 percent support.
They are buried in the fields they sow. The land is considered sacred.
On the basis of the manufactured consent, Adani began to take over the land. There were scenes of violent invasion. Adani brought in earthmovers and bulldozed acres of ripe paddy and wheat. They mowed down an orchard of three thousand mango trees on common lands. The earthmovers uprooted date palms, babul trees, and coconut palms, leaving a trail of tree carcasses. In Mali and Gangta, they bulldozed over freshly transplanted paddy seedlings. They destroyed the jang baha, graveyards where ancestors of the Santhals are buried. After several rounds of land clearance, punctuated by protests of Santhal women, Adani placed a fence around the whole property so villagers could not access their fields.
Last October, two activists, Subha Protim Roy Chowdhury and Samindra Sarkar from An Assemblage of Movement Research and Appraisal (AAMRA), visited Godda on my behalf to speak with two families of Santhal villagers who continue to withhold their fields from Adani: Sita Murmu and her son Rakesh Hembram from Mali village, and Surya Narayan Hembram and his son Madan Kumar Hembram from Gangta.
Though most of Adani’s fence is made of concrete, the area facing Mali and Gangta villages is cordoned off with concertina wire, reflecting the shaky legal grounds on which they occupy Santhal land. Surya Narayan pulled down the wire to access his lands, which he continues to farm. Sita Murmu’s land is still outside the fence, but Adani’s thugs regularly beat her and her family when they farm it.
“We will not give our lands,” says Sita. “Where will we go?” Her land yields a rich produce; Sita has educated four of her sons in farming. “This land is our only identity,” says Madan Kumar. The diku, or non-Indigenous people in villages like Motia, they say, often don’t farm their own land. They live and work outside the village and hire sharecroppers or landless laborers to farm it. Many dikus were happy to sell their land to Adani for a lump sum of seventy to eighty lakhs each (about US$100,000).
As construction of the plant goes ahead, Sita and Surya Narayan’s crops will be covered by dust. The plant is also siphoning off the groundwater sources, running wells dry. They are constantly abused with racist slurs and assaulted by three Adani agents who stay in the field office in Godda. Yet over time, they have entered an uneasy coexistence with these men, a standoff of sorts.
Sita’s son Rakesh greets the men with the respectful honorifics ji and bhai (brother). “I am well acquainted with all three,” he says. “Whenever I meet them, we start fighting.” He laughs. “They ask ‘How are you doing, Rakesh ji?’ I say that our condition is quite apparent for all to see.”
One of Adani’s agents, Abhimanyu, tells Rakesh that the Santhals have a lot to benefit from Adani. “There is no way you will regain your land,” he says. “It has been taken by the government. Just take the compensation. That’s the only way out.”
“Would you give your land to me?” Rakesh asks. “Along with your family house?”
“That’s not how it works Rakesh ji.”
“So how does it work?” asks Rakesh, in frustration. “Other than my land, which Adani has illegally acquired, I do not own anything.”
A DEEPER THREAD connects the Wangan and Jagalingou people with the Santhals, one that goes back a century and a half. British colonization extended into the Central Queensland hinterland in the 1840s. There were several battles with Aboriginal groups between 1857 and 1861 as white settlers set up stations on Aboriginal lands, bringing herds of invasive species like sheep and cattle. In a series of incidents at Hornet Bank station and Cullin-la-ringo, the Iman and Gayiri people fought the settlers with nulla-nullas, killing a few dozen. In retaliation, colonial police and death squads hunted them down and massacred them in the hundreds. From the 1860s to the 1880s, there were further massacres in Belyando and elsewhere.
At the same time, the British dispossessed the Santhal people from their communal lands in the Chota Nagpur Plateau. The Santhals were forced into labor gangs for indigo factories and railroads, and resettled as agricultural laborers on the land. They were required to pay exorbitant cash taxes to the British, making them dependent on moneylenders. The Santhal rebellion, or Hul, started in June 1855, as legend goes, when four Santhal leaders received a signal from the god Thakur to rebel. They killed several moneylenders and a police inspector at a local market. By mid-August, about thirty thousand rebels had amassed, armed with bows and arrows. They were met by a regiment of fourteen thousand soldiers of the British colonial army, who executed them just as they had executed the Iman and Gayiri people in Central Queensland.
The people did not forget. Stories, memorials, pilgrimages, and festivals commemorate the events in both places. The Santhals refer to their fight against Adani as a present-day Hul. Coedie sees himself as a modern-day Dundalli, a Jinibara warrior who carried out guerrilla raids on settlers in the 1840s and ’50s till he was publicly hanged.
Here lies the distinction with environmental movements that focus on the actions of modern mining companies. Indigenous struggles against the coal mines and power plants are part of a long and enduring battle against colonialism that has lasted centuries. Adani has simply taken the place of the British, as one Santhal farmer said. And the people today are animated by the spirit of their ancestors in standing their ground and fighting to the end.
THE TENSE STANDOFF in the Galilee Basin and Godda reflect the fragility of the legal basis upon which Adani occupies Indigenous lands. The legal apparatus, which purports to protect Indigenous lands, has colluded with extractive industry to dispossess them once again. Indigenous groups in both places continue to mount cases through the courts, but the system remains one step ahead of them. Sita and Rakesh filed a case against Adani through the local Godda court, believing the ruling would be in their favor once the judge heard their stories. But their lawyer was bought out by Adani. He told them the judge was on Adani’s side and he didn’t allow them to enter the courtroom after they gave the testimony, nor did he make a case.
Even after hearing our full story, the judgment was not in our favor,” Rakesh remarks. “How could it ever be in our favor?”
Rakesh, Sita, Coedie, Adrian, and others have no expectations of justice through the legal system anymore. But they are wedging open cracks in the system simply by maintaining their presence on their lands. By refusing to leave, they reveal the lie of consent.
Perhaps, in the end, the issue of how the standoff is resolved is less important than the radical dreams it gives rise to. People often ask Coedie, “What if you can’t stop the mine?” To which he responds, “What if the purpose is not to stop the mine? What if the purpose is to fire up other mobs around the country to take on mining companies and start spot fires all around this country until it starts an uprising?”
Madan Kumar says something similar. “What could we do? We got trapped. But after getting trapped, everyone realized what was happening. If we stayed like this, we would all die. So we decided to put up a fight. We’ll run away with the trap itself. This is what we need to do. This is the only thing that we need to do.”
THE SANTHAL PEOPLE believe that in the beginning, the world was water. An ocean of dark water. The deity Thakur Jiu made the first living beings as water animals—the crocodile, the raghop boar fish, the prawn. The water animals brought up soil from below, the earthworm resting on the back of the tortoise to reach the watery depths. Once the earth was firm, Thakur Jiu created birds, who made a nest in the sirom plants and laid two eggs. From these eggs, the first two humans hatched.
Water is the source of all life. The places of many waters remain under threat, but the ancient forces of nature are rising up, mobilizing the original peoples of the land. The Mundunjudra will not lie still.
Sujatha Fernandes is the author of the memoir Close to the Edge, the essay collection The Cuban Hustle, and the children’s book Don’t Throw My Teeth on the Roof! She is a professor of sociology at the University of Sydney. She is currently completing a novel, Beyond the Monsoon Mountains.