To understand how Murrawah Johnson and the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners’ Council became the strongest barrier against one of the world’s largest coalmines, you have to understand the decision that led Johnson’s grandfather to the edge of the Wondai rubbish tip 60 years ago.
It was 1954, the year the Johnson family would break free of their chains.
Bowman Johnson and his wife, Edith, along with their three young children and unborn baby, were living in the Cherbourg settlement under Queensland’s notorious protection act, which would later influence the apartheid regime in South Africa.
That year, the head of the mission told Bowman to leave his family.
He was to travel hundreds of kilometres away to a new mission, which would later become Woorabinda, two hours west of Rockhampton.
But if he left Cherbourg, his heavily pregnant wife would probably have remained trapped in a form of slavery that was not called slavery, and his children, including Murrawah’s father, at that time only four years old, would have been sent to the dormitories.
Bowman was given an ultimatum.
If he did not go to Woorabinda, if he did not sacrifice his family to a future determined by the whim of the protector, he would be kicked off, and they would all starve.
Bowman’s decision, his fight, would affect not only the future of his family but also, potentially, the fate of Adani’s billion-dollar mega mine in the Galilee Basin.
On that day, Bowman made his stand. He borrowed a horse and wagon, and his young family made the journey from Cherbourg to nearby Wondai, where they set up a life on the edge of the town’s rubbish tip.
“My grandparents said ‘No’, they weren’t going to do it,”
Murrawah Johnson tells The Saturday Paper.
“They lived on the edge of the Wondai dump because they were Aboriginal.
My grandfather had trouble finding work because he was Aboriginal.
They didn’t have money or anything. But that’s where my nan gave birth to my uncle, and he became the first baby in our family to be born free of the Aboriginal Protection Act.”
The family would later move around and eventually end up in Brisbane, where Johnson’s grandparents became stalwarts of the transient Murri community who were being moved off and forced into bigger settlements.
They continued to fight for their rights, and housed the displaced and dispossessed.
Today her grandparents’ names – Bowman Johnson and Edith Johnson – adorn two hostels in the river city.
To understand Murrawah Johnson you have to understand how in her resistance to the mine and her fight for her people’s right to say “No” when faced with an ultimatum – to sign an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) or starve – she is echoing the words of her grandfather all those years ago.
Today Johnson is 22. Like her grandparents, she moved from town to town, growing up not only on her ancestral lands, but between Mackay and Brisbane, and in Woorabinda, her mother’s home community.
She spends her days like many other Aboriginal women her age – studying, dancing and catching up with friends. She is known in her circle as “the Beyoncé of fighting coalmines”.
But you get a sense that description cuts her short.
For all Beyoncé’s considerable talents, she has never stood up to the pressures of federal and state governments, big mining and a corporate media machine, to protect the land she holds sacred.
For the past two years, after being named spokeswoman of Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners’ Council along with her uncle Adrian Burragubba, who is a senior traditional owner and cultural leader, Johnson has been the public face of the campaign to protect her country, sacred sites and songlines – including the tracks of Mundunjundra, or the rainbow serpent, which moulded the land – from the destructive proposed Carmichael coalmine on the Galilee Basin.
She has travelled across Australia and the world, lobbying big banks and investors, and will this month give a keynote address at the largest Aboriginal conference on the circuit – the National Native Title Conference.
Yet unlike Beyoncé, who also dances on the national stage, she has trouble being heard.
In regional central Queensland, crippled by unemployment from a collapse in mining, where lawns grow wild around the streets of repossessed houses, the rhetoric on Adani’s controversial Carmichael mine has been centred on jobs, and not much else.
Environmental destruction and the encroaching threat of climate change, ever-present in natural disasters, are relegated to the final paragraphs of news stories or simply ignored altogether.
In this climate, the battle of the Wangan and Jagalingou peoples to protect not just their traditional lands but their families from the destructive machinations of native title remains a “sideline” issue, a niche concern to be brushed away in the pursuit of white aspirations.
“There’s this situation where those of us who have made a decision to go against the mine have to be across everything,” Johnson tells The Saturday Paper.
“We have to be across the environmental destruction the mine poses.
We have to be across the false benefits promised to our people.
We have to be across the reality of the economics and the feasibility of this project – that 17 out of 20 of the world’s top coal investors have already said they are not giving this company any money for this project.
Whereas whitefellas who feel they are the victims in this situation, they don’t have to do that.
“They’re not required to do all of that extra labour, and to justify their humanity and why the decision should mean something.
No one’s asking them why they went into a dying industry, but everyone’s asking us why we said ‘No’.”
Johnson’s labour began in 2014, after her people had already said “No” to Adani on numerous occasions.
That year, and in 2012, the Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owners’ Council voted against signing an ILUA with the company, standing strong even under the threat of compulsory acquisition.
It was at their 2014 meeting that she took one of her first stands against the project.
“I got up and asked, ‘If this is supposed to be the biggest coal project in the world – where is the environmental impact statement in this proposal?’ ” she says.
“I was literally told that it was none of my concern, because our job, the reason we were there, was for matters of native title.
It was a symbolic thing.
The perception was that the environment shouldn’t be in our interest.
Our interests should be about getting our people out of poverty and signing this mining deal.”
The ultimatum was there: accept this deal, or starve.
Although the meeting resulted in a rejection of the mine, it was not the end.
The result has been a divisive project that has pushed the understanding of the Indigenous right to free prior and informed consent to its limits.
Johnson says in April 2016 Adani had produced an ILUA at a meeting where at least 220 people of the 295 in attendance had never been involved with the related Wangan and Jagalingou land claim, nor had they been at previous meetings.
She says they were paid by Adani to show up.
This was after a separate meeting of traditional owners the month before rejected any dealing with Adani for the third time.
Between April 2015 and today members of the Wangan and Jagalingou council, led by Adrian Burragubba, have launched a series of legal actions.
The latest before the Federal Court is aimed squarely at knocking out Adani’s claim to have an agreement with the traditional owners for the mine.
As the federal and state governments move heaven and earth to open up the Galilee Basin for open-cut coalmining, Johnson says it is the “blackfellas from the central Queensland bush” who are proving the hardest to shift.
Their campaign received a boost with the recent McGlade decision in the Federal Court over the Noongar claim in Western Australia, which brought into question the validity under the Native Title Act of ILUAs that are not signed by all registered claimants.
The decision all but killed off Adani’s application to register its land use deal, which the Wangan and Jagalingou objectors say is phoney.
In response, the federal government has tried so far unsuccessfully to rush through changes to the Native Title Act to overturn the decision, with little to no participation or consent from Aboriginal traditional owner groups.
Only professional native title bodies, who are funded by government to deliver native title “services”, have been consulted.
Johnson says the Wangan and Jagalingou council is now calling for a three-month extension of the consultation process.
When Johnson returns to her room at night, on her wall she has a poem given to her by her mother.
Every day, she considers its words: “Imagine if you could meet your ancestors – would they be proud of you?”
For Johnson, the decision her grandparents made in 1954 was a turning point.
“That was the defining moment for, I think, everything that came after,” she says.
Her grandfather was the first generation of his family line who wasn’t born on his traditional land, who wasn’t allowed to speak his language, who wasn’t able to eat his native food.
Now his granddaughter is fighting to return to that same country, and to protect it. “The first person to not grow up on country in my family is in my living memory. And I’m only 22. And now we’re demanding that country. We don’t just want to go back there, and stay connected. It’s much more – it is my fundamental human right to have access to that place, and to be involved in the decisions that happen to it.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 3, 2017 as “Landed sentry”. Subscribe here.
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