Yindjibarndi people question Fortescue Metals leases

UPDATE

Miners get stacked deck claim Yindjibarndi community

"We are disappointed with the decision but it comes as no surprise.This confirms what we have known all along, that the Native Title Act is a bad piece of legislation that consistently works against the interests of the first Australians.What is worse is that the system gives us no chance against the teams of company lawyers, land access managers and FMG's unlimited war chest. The deck has been stacked against us," Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation CEO, Michael Woodley, said.

YAC advises that it is seeking advice about appealing this decision by the Federal Court to the High Court of Australia.

Rebecca Le May AAP Sydney Morning Herald August 3, 2011

Fortescue Metals Group insists it has all the approvals needed to proceed with its Solomon iron ore project, but Aboriginal landowners are questioning the validity of its mining leases.

The project lies about 200km south of Roebourne in Western Australia, mainly in Yindjibarndi country, and is Fortescue's third iron ore operation.

Construction is advancing rapidly and first ore production is slated for the March quarter of 2013, Fortescue's new chief executive, Neville Power, told the Diggers and Dealers mining conference in Kalgoorlie, WA, on Wednesday.

But Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) says it's incorrect for Fortescue to refer to the Solomon mining leases as being valid.

"FMG has applied for four mining leases and, although it is true that three of those leases were granted by the state late last year, the validity of those three mining leases is still an issue before the full court of the Federal Court and may yet be the subject of appeals to the High Court of Australia," YAC told AAP.

"The fourth mining lease has not been granted at all."

The Native Title Tribunal had recommended the fourth mining lease be granted, however, because it ticked all the boxes in terms of good faith negotiations, but was yet to be determined by the WA Mining Warden, YAC said.

It also said the WA Mining Warden was yet to make a decision about miscellaneous mining leases where Fortescue plans to build its Solomon Hub infrastructure.

These were also subject to appeals by YAC.

Mr Power insists Fortescue has all the necessary approvals for Solomon.

When asked about the mining lease validity, he said: "We have all of the approvals that we need for the Solomon initial development, which will take us to 60 million tonnes".

"We're working now and have done an enormous amount of work towards the environmental approval process for Anketell (port) and the continued development of the Solomon project," he told reporters on thesidelines of the conference.

"We've been accelerating that work in recent times as we've been adding more and more resources to our portfolio."

YAC said Fortescue cannot legally begin mining in the Yindjibarndi part of Solomon, including the "launch pad" Firetail deposit until it meets state-imposed consent conditions for the protection of Yindjibarndi heritage.

It has objected to the leases being granted because it says the mining activities will disrupt the religious practices of the Yindjibarndi people and damage the social structures of their community.

Yindjibarndi people take on FMG mining magnate

In the beautiful rugged Pilbara region of north Western Australia a struggle is being played out between a timeless culture and a culture and ideology which is threatening the vitality of humanity itself.

On one side are the proud Yindjibarndi people, who wish to preserve their culture, customs, language, way of life and country which embodies their spirit. On the other side is Australia's second richest person, Andrew Forrest (another Western Australian mining magnate, Gina Rinehart being the richest) with a net worth of $6.9 billion who is chairman of the corporation he founded, Fortescue Metals Group (and currently appealing a ruling by the Federal Court that bars him from running FMG), which mines and exports iron ore.

The other intriguing story to be told here is that of Native Title and whether it is really working the way it was originally intended or has it become a one-way street for the benefit of mining companies. When Native Title was introduced in the mid 1990s it was thought that the process would give Aboriginal people an opportunity to be at the negotiating table on decisions about the future of their culture and country. The truth is now that this occurs only as an appearance while the reality is that once an Aboriginal community commits to the Native Title process they are locked into a process which guarantees that mining will take place on their land whether they want the mining or not.

In WA the mining interests are also assisted in an almost blanket (corporate) media message that mining is good for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. This is nowhere more evident than in the sole WA daily newspaper, The West Australian which fawns over local magnates Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart in weekly articles and opinion pieces, celebrating the wealth and prosperity they allegedly bring to the state, championing their causes, and glossing over their weaknesses and the detriment they cause to some communities and the environment.

In recent years the Yindjibarndi people through the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) commenced negotiations on a Native Title Claim with FMG which came to a head at an extraordinary meeting on March 16, 2011, in Roebourne. The meeting was called by a splinter group of Yindjibarndi people supported by Andrew Forrest. Andrew Forrest was at the meeting, as were a lawyer hired by him, Ronald Bower, his own anthropologist and other henchmen.

Andrew Forrest had also bussed in Aboriginal people from Carnarvon and elsewhere for the meeting to be stacked by people who would vote to accept the proposal that FMG were going to put to them.

The meeting did not go Andrew Forrest's way when those Yindjibarndi people lead by YAC CEO, Michael Woodley walked out in disgust. While Andrew Forrest sought to continue the meeting regardless, he was not able to legitimise his claim on Yindjibarndi land. Forrest's unconscionable actions were captured on video and downloaded onto the web where it went viral.

On July 18, the ABC's Four Corners program ran a story on the struggle between the Yindjibarndi people and Andrew Forrest's FMG which has received much media attention in the eastern states while The West ran an article on the program without actually referring to it as the ABC's Four Corners program!

Vermeer T1255 Surface miners at FMG's Christmas Creek mine near the Chichester Ranges in the Pilbara. This is the fate which awaits Yindjibarndi land if Andrew Forrest is successful with the Solomon Hub project. Each T1255 surface miner can rip up over 800 tonnes of magnetite ore per hour. FMG has recently taken delivery of the latest Vermeer T1655 Surface Miner. It has twice the size and power of the T1255. It is described by its makers as, "disruptive technology".

The following is an interview conducted by The Guardian's reporter Richard Titelius with Michael Woodley.

Richard Titelius: Kerry O'Brien on Four Corners said that, "over the next 40 years FMG is hoping to scrape some 2.4 billion tonnes of iron ore off this land. The infrastructure and people that come with it will inevitably reduce much of this country to an industrial landscape."

Can you comment further and would you like to see less iron ore scraped from your people's country?

Michael Woodley: If we had a genuine choice of being able to say, "No mining", then they (the Aboriginal people) would say no. The Yindjibarndi people do not want to see their country become an industrial site for the benefit of shareholders and investors. We do not want Yindjibarndi land to become a haven for the mining investors to become rich at the expense of Aboriginal people who will become poorer materially, physically and spiritually.

Titelius: What about water resources? Would such activity have an effect on the hydrology of the area i.e. the area around the proposed Solomon Hub project?

Woodley: There are currently water shortages being experienced in the Pilbara and projects like the Solomon Hub envisage taking 60 million tonnes a year over 40 years. Water is an integral part of mining and as mining activity increases the need for water will increase. Where will the water come from to meet this increased demand? The townships of Dampier and Karratha rely on water from bores at Millstream and sometimes these bores have been run down to critical levels.

The mining activity itself will cause some parts of the water courses to be touched and compromised, while some parts will not be touched on the surface but will not have water flow to them as a consequence of activity upstream or elsewhere.

Titelius: Are there sacred sites and law sites that would be disturbed by the proposed mining activity at what FMG calls the Solomon Hub?

Woodley: Yes, the Yindjibarndi people through the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation - an organisation set up to protect our Native Title rights and promote our culture, has been trying to educate the [Native Title] Tribunal, but have not been able to move them one iota. This is partly because the Native Title Tribunal administers the Native Title Act which is a federal Act to promote the inevitable development of a mining or other projects. The recognition and classification of sacred sites and other places or objects which are of significance to Aboriginal people is controlled by the Heritage of Western Australia Act 1990 which is a state act.

Titelius: In the Four Corners program you said that the only way for Aboriginal people to get out of poverty and to fix up some of their social problems is to insist that these companies pay a fair deal. How would they pay this money and what should the companies such as FMG do?

Woodley: It is very important from the outset to state that Aboriginal people are capable of managing their own affairs. We have to free ourselves from the lows that industry and governments have sunk us to.

Aboriginal people face challenges in health, housing, education and the motivation which is often not there ... as we are constantly being told what we are and what to do and being kept out of our country while we live in Roebourne.

We need to get back to the simple and fundamental things in life that has kept us Yindjibarndi people going for over 40,000 years.

Titelius: I agree and no white civilisations have endured continuously for 40,000 years in the same way. The non-Indigenous have certainly something to learn from Aboriginal people [about how to cultivate and protect a society].

What would happen to present and future Native Title claims if no one is teaching law, language, and customs to new generations of Yindjibarndi people?

Woodley: The Native Title legislation [and process] is designed to remove connection from Indigenous peoples to their country for the benefits of colonial/imperialist and capitalist class. Native Title gives the appearance that there is consultation with one or more claimant groups but what happens if, due to the complexity of the claim and disagreements over what is being asked from the mining company, that the mining company can advise the Native Title Tribunal that they have been bargaining in good faith and that 6-12 months has elapsed and can they now make a decision on their claim. This will usually be as much of the mineral rights that they have been able to peg out on the Aboriginal land. In the case of FMG, it is more than 50 percent of our land.

Titelius: Can Aboriginal people who have full employment and are embedded in mainstream society have the time and the will to continue Yindjibarndi law, language and customs?

Woodley: No they don't have the time - and that has been the challenge for Aboriginal people of being torn between two worlds. Kinship is very important in Aboriginal society and a big part of the glue that holds it together. They [Yindjibarndi people] want to be with their people and their country more than their jobs. What defines white man is often his job, his car, house, travel and status whereas it is kin and country which define Aboriginal people.

I have known people who would chuck in their jobs rather than their identity.

Titelius: What will happen to Aboriginal law when every Aboriginal person has a full time job? Readers may remember the Australian Employment Covenant (AEC) which was launched in 2008 with the backing of the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It involved such luminaries of capital and their apologists as Rupert Murdoch, Andrew Forrest, James Packer, Noel Pearson and the heads of almost 200 other corporations including Woolworths and KFC. And although ambitious in its scope (to find 50,000 jobs for Aboriginal people within two years), its agenda was far less noble. But after three years it has filled just 4,300 jobs.

Woodley: If there were full employment of Aboriginal people in mainstream society we could kiss our world goodbye ... and especially any rights and interests under Native Title.

Aboriginal people will be too busy being caught up in the same things that white people do. No wonder Andrew Forrest "can tell you straight employing Aboriginal people is great for business." It creates more consumers and therefore more is produced.

More and more people need to wake up to the impact which this materialist, production/consumption world view has on Indigenous societies and the non-Aboriginal world. We need to make a good, clean, green and sustainable world.

White people are starting to learn this too, hopefully not before it is too late.

Titelius: In the 1920s and 1930s Western Australia had a Chief Protector of Aborigines, AO Neville (Mister Neville to the Aboriginal people) who adopted a paternalistic approach to the care of Aboriginal people believing that it was in their best interests for them to forget their culture and that it would be best to try and breed them out as they couldn't look after themselves.

Is Andrew Forrest's approach to the Yindjibarndi people a similar type of paternalism, hoping to give them all jobs while trying to have the Aboriginal people turn away from their culture and the country which embodies their meaning and spirit?

Woodley: Andrew Forrest is replacing government welfare with mining welfare, which in effect creates native welfare all over again. This is because Aboriginal people will still not have the sovereignty over their land and the autonomy over their communities and destinies.

Titelius: Have you been following what has been happening at James Price Point in the Kimberley with the proposed Woodside Gas Processing Plant?

Do you see any parallels or lessons of the struggle north of Broome between competing groups of Aboriginal people and your own struggle with FMG in the Pilbara?

Woodley: What I can see from the struggle at James Price Point where the Kimberly Land Council has been acting on behalf of the traditional owners the Goolarabooloo Jabirr-Jabirr people in a native Title application, disagreement has occurred where all the voices were not being properly heard.

People's eagerness to get into these projects means that some people are overlooked.

These are sensitive negotiations and if all relevant sides have not been heard as in this case then one side which has been ready to agree with Woodside Petroleum and the Liberal government of Colin Barnett, then the land is surrendered pursuant to the wishes of this group, while others are left frustrated and empty handed-or "empty countryed".

In our case with the Yindjibarndi people, Allery Sandy has been too quick to push a point of view which could see all Yindjibarndi people lose something in exchange for a fleeting glance at wealth for a few people.

The lesson is that, when Aboriginal people are strong, unified and speak with one voice that we will show to mining companies and government what our beliefs in our country are and the preservation and strengthening of our culture and way of life.

Titelius: The federal government is trying to tackle the effects of climate change by introducing a carbon tax and reducing greenhouse gas emissions-initially by five percent. Do you believe that preserving the integrity of Aboriginal land, creating sustainable industries and jobs (tourism, some mining, agriculture and renewable energy) would be a way for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to achieve a win-win situation?

Woodley: Aboriginal people are the masters of land management as we have been able to demonstrate that for thousands of years. A diversity of land use and ensuring that a variety of land uses do not compromise each other is critical for sustainable and effective land management i.e. people, animals and plants existing in harmony.

Aboriginal people should be a part of this process as we are the custodians of the land and as the land is our temple we want to care for it so that we fulfil the wishes of our elders past and present who sought the integrity of country above all else.

By stopping or putting significant restrictions on the amount of Yindjibarndi land which can be mined by FMG, this will also limit the amount of CO2 which will be released into the atmosphere through the mining of the magnetite iron ore, its shipping and processing.

Unfortunately, while it would be an achievement to stop Andrew Forrest and FMG from mining their tenements, other bastards would step in and do the same thing unless the government acted to make parkland of these areas rich in conservation and spiritual values.

Titelius: This is the challenge to save Aboriginal country, customs and heritage and ultimately humanity by preserving this country and creating a good, sustainable and peaceful future for all.

The alternative is the surface or strip mining for the magnetite ore that has already started at other FMG mine sites at the Cloudbreak and Christmas Creek 200 kilometres to the east of the proposed Solomon Hub project which is on the southern end of Yindjibarndi land.

At these sites 120 tonne and now 180 tonne Vermeer T1655 rip through the land at about 750,000 tonnes per month, reducing the land to pits and graded strips on which little will be able to grow or live for decades. In the case of the Solomon Hub, the proximity of the Fortescue River and its tributaries it could cause massive sediment build up - especially of the Millstream oasis which is the most sacred of Yindjibarndi cultural sites.

Recently the Barnett Liberal state government created a further reason for it to approve magnetite and uranium ore mining - a five percent royalty tax on their shipment.

However, while the corporate profits and government revenues are being increased they are being done through irreparable damage to Yindjibarndi country, the water and other ecosystems of the area and humanity and this planet as a whole.