A new land rights battle over a $20 billion bauxite deposit in far-north Queensland, one of most valuable in the world, is headed for the High Court.
The case alleges racial discrimination under a special Queensland law preventing legal challenges to mining agreements over Aurukun Aboriginal land in Cape York.
The law dating from 2006 is the only one its type in the state.
A controversial decision by the state government last year to sign an agreement with Swiss miner Glencore, over a rival bid by native title holders backed by a overseas consortium, sparked the case.
A federal senate inquiry is also examining the circumstances.
Traditional owners say economic self-determination is at stake.
“We have this native title, but what does it mean? You know. We still don’t have that right even though it was given to us,” said Barbara Bandicootcha, Wik woman and a director of Ngan Aak-Kunch (NAK) native title body.
Over decades, the Wik people of Aurukun defined native title in Australia, including land rights pioneer John Koowarta’s battle with Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in the 1980s and the Wik High Court decision in 1998.
“(I’m) very proud, very proud. I mean they stood up. They believed. It makes me who I am today,” said Ms Bandicootcha.
Walking on the land of her ancestors, Ms Bandicootcha says the Wik and Wik Way are still voiceless about its exploitation
Queensland’s Mineral Resource Act has a special section for Aurukun lands that excludes any objections or appeals against mining decisions made by the natural resources minister.
The High Court last year decided it would hear a racial discrimination case brought by NAK claiming the law excludes the Aboriginal people of Aurukun having a say over what happens on their land.
The Queensland government belatedly tabled amendments to the Act in mid-February this year to remove the offending sections, but not retrospectively.
“The key amendments in the bill will largely reinstate, for an Aurukun project, the usual notification and objection processes that apply to other resource projects of this type,” Natural Resources and Mines Minister Anthony Lynham told parliament.
“This will mean an applicant for a mining lease of an Aurukun project will be required to undertake public notification the application and provide copies to the relevant owners of the land.”
Dr Lytham said the provisions were added in 2006 and removing them fulfils a Labor government election commitment to “restore community objection rights relating to mining developments as soon as possible not only to the local landholders and Indigenous groups”.
“The Aurukun provisions were designed to provide legislative assurance for a simplified process to achieve certainty of mining tenure for the preferred bidder,” he said.
“The Aurukun provisions were never intended to have a discriminatory effect and it remains the state’s position that the provisions are valid.”
No date has been set for the High Court hearing but native title holders hope it will reset the mining tender process, allowing them to challenge the Glencore agreement with the Queensland government.
Aurukun is one of the most disadvantaged Aboriginal towns in Australia but sits on one of the richest bauxite deposits in the world.
With mass unemployment and social dysfunction, Aurukun’s 1,200 people need jobs.
“Mining will offer a big training and employment opportunity for the community. It’s about getting away from welfare dependency,” said Aurukun mayor Dereck Walpo.
“Not a whole lot of people are going to have a job but it will lessen the unemployment factor.”
Mayor Walpo backs the Glencore deal and refused to comment on the ABD bid or the High Court case.
An estimated 480 million tonnes of high-grade bauxite is buried on mainly Ngan Aak-Kunch land.
Over five decades, first French miner Pechiney and then China’s Chalco failed to start operations or deliver Aurukun promised economic salvation.
In the caretaker period before the January 2015 Queensland election, the Liberal-National Party in an unusual move awarded a development agreement to Swiss miner Glencore.
It is known as the ‘Aurukun agreement’ and is confidential.
The current Queensland Labor government says there was nothing untoward about the decision.
It estimates the mine will create 400 jobs in the construction phase and 250 over 20-year lifespan of the mine.
How many of those jobs will go Aurukun people is unknown.
Ngan Aak-Kunch also bid in the tender with Singapore-based consortium known as Aboriginal Bauxite Development (ABD), headed Nicholas Stamp, the former CEO of Comalco and MIM.
Its bid involves exploiting the resource over a 70-year period, where Aboriginal people would have a 15 per cent equity stake and be employed at all levels, from setting up farms to grow food for the mine to working on site.
“My goal is to break the cycle, set things right, for the next generation,” said Ms Bandicootcha.
“In this case there’re opportunities for jobs, and other stuff, that will help our people.
“We deserve more and it’s only fair that they give us a chance.”
The ABD and NAK said they were never told by the Queensland government why their bid was unsuccessful.
“No-one knew about it and it was a surprise, shocking news to the Wik people when we heard,” Ms Bandicootcha said.
Members of the federal Senate economics committee have decide to investigate.
Its inquiry will examine the tender process as part of a broader terms of reference looking into bauxite mining and Aurukun.
“The Queensland Government ran, over a number of months, an open and competitive tender process in respect of the Aurukun bauxite resource,” Glencore said in a submission to the inquiry.
“Glencore considers that its experience in respect of the Aurukun bauxite resource has highlighted a number of issues and challenges relating to native title rights and interests.
They include “restraints on the right to negotiate” and “adequate resources and expertise to obtain clearly independent advisory services in order to secure improved opportunities for development”.
The senate inquiry is due to hold hearings in the coming months.