It’s a hopelessly uneven battle. A small group of the Wangan and Jagalingou tribe, one of the indigenous people or the Aborigines of Australia, is pitted against the powerful Adani Group, which has the full backing of the Queensland and the Commonwealth governments, not to forget that of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It is on the land of these indigenous people in the Galilee Basin of Queensland that Adani Mining Pty Ltd, the Australian subsidiary of the Ahmedabad-based group, is all set to cut open a huge mine, spread over 28,000 hectares, for extracting about 60 million tonnes of coal every year.

The Carmichael mine will have a huge footprint. Integrated with the project is a rail link to the Great Barrier Reef coast, where a new port will come up at Abbott Point to ship the coal to India. The link would pass through yet more lands of the indigenous people.

The slick corporate campaign of Adani has helped to swing public opinion among Queensland's residents by promising 10,000 jobs in a state desperate for employment, along with revenues of $22 billion in taxes and royalties. The funds, the Indian conglomerate said, rather pointedly, will be “invested right back into frontline services across our state."

It’s a campaign that the company has been pushing since 2010 and which got a huge boost in November 2014 when Adani Group chairman Gautam Adani accompanied Modi on his visit to Australia.

A month before the visit, in October 2014, the Wangan and Jagalingou tribe had rejected the project when their consent was sought for the Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILAU). That’s a legal requirement that companies have to secure from indigenous people that have the Native Title Rights to the territory where such projects are coming up. Not only have the Wangan and Jagalingou people said a clear 'No' to Adanithey have kept up a relentless campaign to get the company to back off from the Carmichael mine which they say would devastate their ancestral lands, culturally and environment-wise. Adrian Burragubba, the spokesman for the Wangan and Jagalingou, said the project would “tear the heart out of our country” (country is used throughout to denote the group’s territory).

The Wangan and Jagalingou Families Representative Council, the tribe's official organisation, is a collective of about 24 people. Its spokesman, 55-year-old Burragubba, is a well-known Aboriginal musician who educates Australians, schoolchildren in particular, on the culture and traditions of the indigenous people. He is famous, at home and abroad, not just for the didgeridoo (a wind instrument) that he plays and the songs that he sings of his traditions, but also as a fierce campaigner for Aboriginal rights. In 2004, he contested the Queensland parliamentary elections against the then Premier seeking full reimbursement of the wages ‘stolen’ over the decades from the indigenous people.

Burragubba is a doughty fighter but the Wangan and Jagalingou Council appears not to have had much success in persuading the new Labour government of Queensland headed by Prime Minister Annastacia Palaszczuk to revoke the approvals given by the previous Liberal National Party government to the Carmichael project. At stake is an investment of $ 16.5 billion that is expected to shore up the economy, apart from the promised jobs.

The Adani project is proving to be a test case since it is for the first time that indigenous people have refused altogether to negotiate or settle for compensation, resulting in a tough impasse.  According to legal opinion gleaned from Australia, the case is “a significant event in the history of native title” that will test the limits of an Aboriginal veto on land use.

The snag, though, is that Wangan and Jagalingou are referred to as Native Title applicants since their claim to ancestral lands, of approximately 30, 277 sq km, has yet to be granted. Their application for the title was documented, mapped and registered by the Queensland authorities in July 2004, but a final decision on it has been kept pending all this while. Eight years later, in November 2012, the government accepted an overlapping claim from another group, the Bidjara, in a development that is rather puzzling.

Burragubba’s hold on the Wangan and Jagalingou Council also appears to be slipping after its firm rejection of the ILUA in October 2014. Recently, two of its members broke ranks with the majority to say they were in favour of the project. This has helped Adani Mining to win the legal challenge it lodged at the National Native Title Tribunal to bypass the rejection. The tribunal is an official body mandated to mediate in disputes related to compensation and the terms on which projects are set up on indigenous territory.

In a conversation over phone, Burragubba explains the problems with the native title and why his people will continue to oppose the Adani project.

Why are your people so opposed to Adani’s Carmichael mine project?
We are the true custodians of this land in the Galilee Basin where they plan to have the Carmichael mine. Our culture, our religion, is based on where the song lines run through our country. They connect us to the land and everything on it – trees, plants, shrubs, waterholes, animals, habitats, and aquifers. Without this, we are nothing.  The spirits of our ancestors are found everywhere in this country. We have a connection with this land from the time of creation. The Carmichael River runs from streams that are natural springs, 10 natural springs that are found near where the mine will be. The mine will destroy all this.

Your primary concern appears to be water.
Billions of litres of water will be drawn out because these are open cast mines. They will draw all the water from the springs that rise from the Great Artesian Basin. These are perennial streams that flow continually. Water is symbolic to Aboriginal people. But it will also affect the neighbouring tribes and others, too. It is everyone’s problem.

You say that you have lived in this land from the beginning of time. Can you prove it?
My father, my grandfather, my great grandfather, and his ancestors – all of them were here long before the Europeans came to Australia. Our laws and customs have been practised since the beginning of time. Anthropologists have connected 12 families to the original people. Mine is one.

How many are there of you?
There’s no great population out here. Just about 400-500. At the time of colonisation a lot of our people were massacred and taken from the land. Many were harmed because of the minerals in the area.

Your people have said again and again that you do not want the mine?
On October 4, 2014 we made a declaration and we said no to the mines. We, the Wangan and Jagalingou, are the traditional owners of the land and in occupation of the land before British colonisation. We reject any land use agreement with Adani for the Carmichael mine and we do not consent to the Carmichael mine on our land. We do not accept Adani’s offer to sign away our land and our right of interest in the land. We will defend our country and our connection to it. We will not be able to exist without our land. This project will tear the heart out of our country.

Is this the same declaration which you gave to the government of Queensland?
No, what was presented on March 26, 2015 to the speaker of the Queensland State Parliament, Peter Wellington, was the Declaration of Defence of Country. And in that, we called on the government of Queensland to reject all legal action that Adani is forcefully taking to drive us from our land. We asked it to deny them the mining licence.

So there are two declarations?
The October 4 declaration was when Adani came to us with the company’s ILUA. We said no, and we said that no means no.

Where was the meeting held?
In Rockhampton and about 300 people attended. Adani’s general manager was present to get the ILUA and the majority of the people rejected it.

Adani says you do not represent the Wangan and Jagalingou people.
But the people do. In March, they issued a statement recognising me. The Wangan and Jagalingou Families Representative Council issued a statement that I speak for them.

But there are divisions in your community?
You know, in any society you have differences of opinion. In the Aboriginal groups, in any tribal society, there is some division. There are just 3-4 people who have a different view.

These people are in favour of the Adani project?
Just 3-4 people who are enticed by the offers, but they are still subject to the decision of the council. It’s the majority view that will prevail. These people are operating outside our authority.

Have you been offered any enticements?
No, not personally.

From what I understand of Australian law on Aboriginal lands, you don’t seem to have the final authority over your lands. Adani has gone to the National Native Title Tribunal to override your people’s objection and appears to have won his case. So what happens next?
In actual fact, by us not consenting, it’s still the Crown, the Commonwealth that will have to make the decision. Because of the Mabo decision (the historic 1992 court judgement recognising the land rights of the original people), Aboriginal Law burdens the Crown law. The only way for the Crown to legally take our land is for us to give our consent to give it back. The British, when they colonised Australia, took the land through stealth and terra nullis (a colonial doctrine of the British for taking over new land). If they compulsorily take away our land, it will be stealing our land again.

But is there any legal redress now?
There will be a point where the government has to come back to us. If the Queensland government grants Adani the lease there will be a legal challenge, a challenge in the High Court. A recent case has set a good precedent. The Supreme Court quashed a decision of the government of Western Australia to deregister a sacred site in Port Hedland because of a mining company’s project. So there is hope for our sacred lands too.

(The Adani Group refused to respond to questions sent by the writer.)