Adrian Burragubba is a strong man. His people, the Wangan and Jagalingou, have called this flat, arid outback in central Queensland home for tens of thousands of years, but now all that is under threat.
When the white man first came here in his great-grandfather’s time, Adrian, 54, a tribal elder and ‘law man’, says they were thought of as ghosts – strange, but welcome enough. But later generations were to bear the brunt of the interlopers’ greed. His grandfather and his father were both removed from the land and put on church-run properties to make way for a gold rush.
“Those places were like concentration camps,” he explains. “They wanted Aboriginal people out of the way, so you couldn’t leave them. The police would take you back if you did.”
Now the rapacious outsiders are back. Massive mining operations are looking to plunder a gigantic new coal frontier in the Galilee Basin. There are 247,000 sq km (95,400 sq miles) of coal: a land mass the size of Britain.
Will these companies succeed? “Over my dead body,” says Adrian.
This is a story about the indigenous people – and the loss of Aboriginal lands. It is about Queensland’s fragile environment and the damage a massive new port and thousands of coal container journeys exporting coal would cause to the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most precious ecosystems on earth.
And it is about the world’s climate – if the complex is fully developed, greenhouse gas emissions from the burned coal would top 700m tonnes a year, bringing irreversible climate change ever closer.
Were the Galilee Basin a country, it would be the seventh largest contributor of carbon dioxide in the world, just behind Germany.
Adrian, an accomplished didgeridoo player whose six children often perform traditional music alongside him, initially didn’t want to be drawn into the struggle. Now, he sees no choice but to lead the fight for his 400-strong tribe against what would be the world’s largest thermal coal project and second largest so-called carbon bomb.
“This level of mining would devastate this land beyond recognition. It would destroy any sense of connection to the land. We are afraid of being wiped out completely.”
― Adrian Burragubba
“All memory of our tribe will be erased forever due to mining. If we can’t maintain what our forefathers gave us, we will become non-existent. It will be a barren wasteland, cultural genocide.”
We are next to Wolfgang’s Peak, a volcanic rock Burragubba describes as ‘our Uluru’ as he explains how it was created from a rainbow serpent falling from the sky and crashing to the ground. He hopes its name, derived from a white explorer, will be officially changed one day.
“We talk about yumba, which is not just where you live. It’s where you began, the locus of your creation.”
― Adrian Burragubba
“British law, Australian law – we can’t identify with that. We simply go along with it because we have to obey it, but our law is permanent.
“Mining disrupts the practising of our law. This is our world, and if that ceases to exist, we will perish.”
This is where the AS$16.5bn (£8.4bn) Carmichael project, set to be the first and largest of at least six huge mines planned for the Galilee Basin, is due to launch in 2017. Adani, an Indian firm advised by UK bank Standard Chartered, is behind the project, and is planning to build a 189km rail line to take the coal to an expanded port at Abbot Point near the blue collar town of Bowen on the Great Barrier Reef.
Environmentalists have launched two separate court actions to halt Carmichael. They believe the other mines will be less viable if they can win at the first attempt because it would mean they would have to bear the costs of the infrastructure.
All the mines planned for the Galilee Basin would, at capacity, ship around 330m tonnes of coal a year to India and China, more than doubling Australia’s current coal exports.
Little wonder that Tony Abbott, the prime minister, has praised coal for being “good for humanity”, providing much-needed electricity abroad and thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in taxes at home.
One key environmental impact will be on water, which, in parched Queensland, is precious. The Carmichael mine alone will require a peak of 12.5bn litres a year. In some places, the water table is expected to drop by 50 metres. The Belyando River would have water removed at the rate of 4,629 litres per second if Carmichael goes ahead.