Gamilaraay people fight for their songlines, country in epic anti-CSG fight

Raymond 'Bubbly' Weatherall. Photo: Pip Hinman

Gamilaraay people are engaged in an epic fight for country against coal and gas giants supported by state and federal governments. For Raymond “Bubbly” Weatherall, from the Gunu Gunu clan and the Biridja clan, the fight is about totems — “our water, the environment and the land itself”.

Gamilaraay, one of four largest Indigenous nations in Australia, is the new frontier for the fossil fuel industry in NSW. Shenhua wants to set up a mega coalmine at Biridja (Breeza) on Little Big Light country (Liverpool Plains); Santos wants to push through with its Narrabri Gas Project in the Biliga (Pilliga Forest); and Whitehaven Coal, which already operates several open-cut and one underground coalmine, is pushing for more.

Whitehaven Coal is threatening thousands of hectares of the Biliga–Leard State Forest, home to Bilaga or Cawubuwan Gunigal, the halfway mark of the Little Big Light, the largest area of remnant vegetation in the Guwaygalla red soiled plains and Banuwa black soiled plains (Liverpool Plains). The nationally-listed and critically endangered Bibil (Box-Gum Woodland) is in danger from the encroaching mines.

Along with other Gamilaraay, Yuin and Githabul people, Bubbly has spent a lot of time protesting for his country in the Biliga–Leard State Forest, including successfully halting coal trains travelling from the Maules Creek and Boggabri mines with activists from Frontline Action on Coal.

Whitehaven Coal has already destroyed 38 Gamilaraay sacred sites in the Biliga–Leard State Forest, including 10 sites of high significance. Earlier this year, Bubbly and activists from Frontline Action Against Coal tried to stop Whitehaven from smashing Lawlers Well, the last site of high significance in the Maules Creek mine boundary.

“We have painfully witnessed the destruction of our burial sites, sacred women’s places, and our sacred crystals. Lawlers Well will be defended by our people. Gamil means ‘no’,” Bubbly said at the time.

“We will not stop. We have no choice but to fight, because this is our country, our culture, and the planet we all depend on.”

Divisions

Bubbly told Green Left Weekly that the strong alliances between Gamilaraay custodians, other First Nations peoples, local farmers and activists are critical for the scale of the fight to stop coal and gas companies.

But that battle is being made harder because of differences among the original applicants.

In 2009, 130 Apical Ancestors lodged the Gamilaraay native title application for country that extends from the Queensland–New South Wales border region to Tamworth, Aberdeen/Muswellbrook, Coonabarabran and Walgett. In December 2011, the Federal Court of Australia accepted the Gamilaraay people’s Native Title claim over just the NSW part. There is an application to have Queensland part added this year.

On November 24 last year Whitehaven announced it had reached agreement with the native title holders for access to 300 hectares of land in the Gunnedah Basin to “improve efficiencies” at the Maules Creek mine. ABC reported that the agreement between the company and the native title holders had been reached after four years of negotiation.

But Bubbly said this was done without consultation. “We found out that four of the old native title group, who have now moved to Gunnedah and made their base near the Maules Creek mine, are signing off on culture and heritage and getting all the money. That is a big conflict of interest.”

He said that deals were also being done with Santos and, to some extent, Idemitsu, the Japanese company which runs the Boggabri coalmine.

Bubbly is furious that the previous native title holders sacked NTSCorp, the Native Title Service Provider for Aboriginal Traditional Owners in NSW and the Australian Capital Territory, saying that this means that there is no longer any transparency.

“They have not consulted the community: they are running their own agendas.

“We asked for a meeting, because the provisions [of the original native title claim] stated that no one was allowed to negotiate with any mining company or make any deals unless they come back [to the group] and we vote on it.

“We submitted a section 66B [which allows applicants to be replaced under the Native Title Act], called a meeting on July 19 and voted these four out. But until NTSCorp makes us legitimate by signing affidavits for the 19 new applicants who were voted in, nothing will change.”

When this happens, Bubbly said the new leadership “can put a stop to any deals that have been done”.

Choices

The Gomeroi Dreaming website, set up by Alf Priestly, lays out the pro-mining position, that has caused the rift among the Gomeroi nation’s claimants. Priestly, who once worked for the Moree Lands Council, now appears to be a cheerleader for Whitehaven Coal.

The website states that “negotiations with developers offer the Gamilaraay people their only chance to protect culture and heritage”. It asserts that “Gamilaraay people [will] get a fair share of jobs and the other economic benefits from new developments on their country” and goes on to say that if applicants do not negotiate with developers, “the mine still gets built, but there are few benefits for local Aboriginal people…

“The only real choice any Applicant group gets to make is do we negotiate with the mining companies or not? Say no and the local Aboriginal people miss out on jobs and lose what say they have on culture and heritage protection.

“This is why the Gamilaraay Native Title Applicants have pragmatically decided to negotiate with mining companies.”

Bubbly rejects that argument, saying the applicants do have a choice. “Coal and gas is no good for us, no good for country”, he said.

Bubbly is just as critical of Aboriginal Lands Councils that choose to work with mining companies. “They are supposedly the governing body for all Aboriginal communities. In Narrabri, the New South Wales Aboriginal Lands Council was the first to work with Santos and Whitehaven.

“It was August 31, 2015 that the Moree Lands Council had a meeting with Santos. That’s when I first learned that its exploration leases go right up into Gladstone in Queensland. Santos’ huge Narrabri gas seam project starts south of Moree, goes via Chincilla where CSG has wrecked farmland, all the way up to Gladstone in Queensland. It’s huge.

“I’ve seen the size of the pipes Santos is trying to put into the Pilliga Scrub: they are two feet wide. And it wants to put 850 wells in there soon. Out of each it will get a truck load of salt. That’s 850 trucks per day. That’s a massive amount of salt. Where are they going to put it? And the water that comes out of the wells, where are they going to put that? The rivers are already stuffed.

Protecting water

“Our native title boundaries are bound by four rivers: the Mooki in the south; the Macintyre in the north; the Gwydir to the east just underneath the Great Dividing Range; and the Barwon in the west. Through all of that, goes the Namoi, which is right in the middle.

“Can you imagine the state of the water from all the chemicals from CSG mining, as well as the new open-cut Vickery coal mine, which is right near the Namoi River?

“The water that comes off the Great Dividing Range and the Warrumbungles is cooler, and it flows into the Namoi and Mooki Rivers and fills the aquifers for the Great Artesian Basin.

“It’s a very significant part of the water system. If [the coal and gas companies] mess with the Namoi, that will dry up rivers west, north, south and east of there as well.

“That whole Gunnedah basin area, where Whitehaven has its mines, flows out to the Barwon, which then spreads to the Murray and Darling Rivers.

“Through the water, the pollution will spread into South Australia and Victoria. Just because Victoria has banned fracking — a very good thing — doesn’t mean that they won’t still feel the effects of what’s happening in New South Wales.”

Bubbly is keen to try to bring the parties together and regularly travels back to Moree. “I travel home to help maintain our songlines, dance and our stories. As Gamilaraay, we come from Gamilu Bidi Wii [Before the Big Light].”

“What colonisation did was to break up our tribe, including by putting people into different towns. But we are still Gamilaraay people and it’s important to keep reminding people of that.”

“We do have to fight together, including with farmers, some of whom in and around Moree do acknowledge the First Nations. But we have to be put up front, before the farmers’ livestock and harvests.

“To stop mining companies and governments, egos and personalities have to be put to the side. Otherwise our grandchildren will not benefit in the same way that we have with the water and the land.”

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