Resistance warrior wins international environment prize

Rudi Maxwell |

Murrawah Johnson has won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her grassroots advocacy.
Murrawah Johnson has won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her grassroots advocacy.

Fighting billionaires and their proposals for coal mines may not be a typical way to spend your youth – but Murrawah Johnson comes from a long line of resistance warriors.

Ms Johnson, a Wirdi woman of the Burra Gubba nation of central Queensland, has been recognised with the Goldman environmental award, a major international prize for grassroots activism which will be announced in a ceremony in San Francisco on Tuesday.

“Having a strong Indigenous cultural identity is actually my superpower in navigating this world and really being able to find my place in the colonial apparatus that is Australia,” Ms Johnson said.

“I come from a long line of resistance fighters who are incredibly resilient in the face of the colonial project.”

She first began publicly speaking against Adani’s (now Bravus in Australia) Carmichael coal mine on her people’s country after her elders tapped her on the shoulder when she was just a teenager.

Murrawah Johnson and Adrian Burragubba
Murrawah Johnson and Adrian Burragubba fought against Adani’s Carmichael coal mine. (Darren England/AAP PHOTOS)

The Wangan and Jagalingou battle against Adani saw Ms Johnson, her uncle Adrian Burragubba and other traditional owners pitted against the powerful multinational company started by Indian billionaire Gautam Adani and at odds with both the Queensland and federal governments.

Between 2012 and March 2016, Wangan and Jagalingou people voted against signing an Indigenous land use agreement with Adani at three separate meetings.

A fourth meeting in April 2016, recorded a 294 to one vote in favour of a land use agreement, with some traditional owners protesting outside and others allegedly refused entry.

Members of the native title claim group who boycotted this meeting say it was stacked with people who did not have a right to vote and it should not have been authorised.

However, it was authorised and has survived numerous legal challenges since, which Ms Johnson was involved in – and also caused huge rifts between family members and bankrupted Mr Burragubba.

“I was depressed for eight years about that but what are you gonna do?” she said.

In 2017, the federal coalition government, supported by Labor, amended the Native Title Act so a majority of named claimants could sign an Indigenous land use agreement, whereas previously the act had required agreement to be unanimous – which in the Wangan and Jagalingou people’s (also called Clermont-Belyando Area Native Title Claim Group) it demonstrably had not been.

Then, in 2019, the Queensland Labor government extinguished native title over 1385 hectares of Wangan and Jagalingou land without any public announcement, paving the way for the coal mine.

“As a young person, feeling disempowered, really starting to open your eyes to the fact that there’s a conspiracy going on that works against your people, where First Nations people are always sort of the collateral,” Ms Johnson said.

“Against the powers that be, the state apparatus, we’re still fighting the doctrine of Terra Nullius (land belonging to no-one) and so it’s hard to not be heartbroken, especially running case after case.”

She took the learnings from the losses and the knowledge passed down by her elders and in 2020 led Youth Verdict’s challenge to the proposed Galilee Coal Project in the Queensland Land Court on human rights grounds, fighting billionaire Clive Palmer’s company Waratah Coal.

And this time they won, with the court making a landmark ruling in 2022, in relation to climate change, finding Waratah Coal’s $6.5 billion Galilee project would limit certain rights, including the right to life and the cultural rights of First Nations peoples.