• Traditional owners from Maningrida and Borroloola travelled to Darwin to protest the mining activity on their land. (AAP/Neda Vanovac) (AAP)
OPINION: On multiple occasions, the NT Government have dismissed the Traditional Owners advice and opinions.
By
Grayson McCarthy-Grogan

1 Nov 2018 - 5:49 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2018 - 12:58 PM

For years and years, Traditional Owners from the Northern Territory have been pleading with their Government, often asking the same thing— to be listened to.

Just last week, Larrakia Elder, June Mills, confronted Chief Minister Michael Gunner during a press conference for his new plan to target anti-social behaviour. Even though the agenda was primarily on policing public drunkenness, Aunty June raised some important issues about fracking in the Northern Territory, calling it “dangerous”, “environmentally unsafe” and “unhealthy”. The Chief Minister gave no response, looking as if he had nothing to say.

As someone who has family working in the mining industry, I have little issue with the mines or the NT Government, as I recognise the ways that they can support communities and provide jobs for many, especially Indigenous people who live remotely.  What I do have a problem with, however, is non-Indigenous people, particularly those in power, not listening to Traditional Owners. Traditional Owners are the gatekeepers of keeping Country safe and when the government dismisses their knowledges, it puts Country in danger.

Mining has been at the core of the People vs. Parliament in the NT.

Traditional Owners are the gatekeepers of keeping Country safe and when the government dismisses their knowledges, it puts Country in danger.

In late 2006, Chris Natt of the Labor Party, was the Minister for Mines in the Northern Territory Government at the time. During which, he allowed the expansion of the Xstrata McArthur River Mine (Now run by Glencore due to merger in 2013).

The McArthur River Mine is located just outside of the community of Borroloola in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The Xstrata McArthur River Mine was authorised to mine underground for lead, zinc and silver. The river itself is a huge part of the community, not just because it connects to all waterways, but due to its Cultural significance as well. 

As a proud Yanyuwa man from this area, I can tell you first hand that the river is part of our Dreaming, our song lines or as we call it, our ‘Kujika’.

As a proud Yanyuwa man from this area, I can tell you first hand that the river is part of our Dreaming, our song lines or as we call it, our ‘Kujika’.

Our song lines spread all across the land of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the McArthur River is the song line of the Rainbow Serpent Kujika. Yanyuwa is our name and we are Li-Anthawirriyarra, it means ‘people whose spiritual origin comes from the sea’. With the river leading straight out to the ocean and to the Sir Edward Pellew Group of Islands (Country that belongs to the Yanyuwa and the Mara people of Borroloola), the river is one of the biggest parts of our history.

To turn the McArthur River Mine from an underground into an open-cut mine, the expansion project involved a diversion of the river. To the people of Borroloola, it meant destroying our song line. For many years— tens of thousands of years —my people, we had no written language. Song lines and handing traditions down orally was our dominant form of teaching. Our song lines are our ancient dreaming stories that explain all of our cultural knowledge about the land and our people.

At the time, Senator Malarndirri McCarthy— my mother —was the Member for Arnhem in the Northern Territory Government. On 16 October 2006, the Elders of the four language groups from Borroloola took a 12-hour bus ride to show their support as Ms McCarthy gave a speech to the Parliament on the struggles that her community and the people she represents were facing with the mine’s proposed development.

“My people travelled the 1000 kilometres to have their voices and their songs heard outside this Parliament, the place that we all know as the House of law,” she said.

“My people have brought with them the laws, songs that have been sung for thousands of years. These songs have been passed down, telling the Rainbow Serpent Kujika the song lines of the McArthur River.

“For the first time in the history of our people, they sat outside and sang in a different land, in the land of the Larrakia, Mr Acting Speaker— not in the land of the Garrawa, or the Gudanji or Mara or Yanyuwa; they sing here, on the land of the Larrakia outside this Parliament, the law makers.”

While Mr Natt approved the McArthur River Mine to turn into an open-cut mine from an underground one, in early 2007, the Supreme Court found that this decision was invalid. The authorisation made back in January 2003 of the mining activities specified to be “Underground lead/zinc/silver mine”, when it originally began.

Nevertheless, the NT Government, whose Chief Minister at the time was Clare Martin, continued ignoring Traditional Owners and even Members of their own party and the Supreme Court decision and instead, moved to debate a Bill on urgency (within a 24 hour decision) to overturn the ruling by the Supreme Court.

After a passionate plea to her colleagues in the Labor Government, Ms McCarthy crossed the floor against them along with two other MLAs, Member for MacDonnell Alison Anderson and Member for Stuart Karl Hampton to oppose the decision of the Bill. The McArthur River Mine Bill was passed in May 2007 with 17 to five majority.

My home is not the only community being affected; in 2015 various communities from the NT marched through Darwin’s CBD and protested so loud, that when the then-Mining Minister Dave Tollner came out to address the crowd, he abandoned his podium before finishing.

For the last two years the NT has had a ban on fracking, a type of mining which injects liquid at a high pressure into subterranean rocks, in order to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas. It can be highly dangerous, impacting the quality of groundwater and air pollution.

However, in April this year, the NT Government, now under Chief Minister Michael Gunner, lifted this moratorium.

What once felt like a victory for the people of the NT has now turned to a feeling of betrayal. While fracking can pose a threat to Sacred Sites, its primary concern is its effect on contaminating drinking water with gas— which anyone, on either side of politics, can recognise is a major problem.

In Borroloola, a few days after the ban was lifted, notices went up telling residents in the Garrawa camps not to drink, cook, or brush their teeth with tap water. If ever there was a sign that your government isn’t listening to you, it’s when literal poisonous gas starts to run through your water supply. When your community can’t access its water supply, it obviously adds further distrust to an already rocky relationship with the Government, whose job it is to manage the wellbeing of its citizens, but regularly ignores our interests.

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As such, many people from Borroloola have joined the SEED Indigenous Youth Climate Network in an attempt to save their community, aiming for a just and sustainable future with strong cultures and communities, powered by renewable energy.

Nicholas Fitzpatrick, Seed member and proud Garrawa/Yanyuwa man, recently spoke to NITV Radio, saying that once big wet seasons happen in the Carpentaria region, Borroloola will be significantly impacted.  

“They’re drilling through our Country, and putting at risk our aquifers and our water on the surface as well,” he said.

“A lot of toxic stuff is ran down and we don’t trust companies anymore, we see it all the time, contamination through our river

“Any spills that happen in our big wet season, you know all this flood water is going to come down our river system. So we’re really concerned about that.”

Feeling as though the NT Government is not listening, SEED has taken an alternative route and attempted to get the fracking Companies’ attention instead.

Over the past 10 years, we can see that the NT Government has had a particular stance on mining, one that has benefits economically, but also, one that comes at the expense of not only the environment, but people’s health and culture. 

Origin Energy is one of the larger companies who will begin drilling in numerous areas around the NT in 2019, fracking for gas. Last week, Traditional Owners and SEED members from communities in the NT travelled to tell shareholders that they have not given permission for anyone to frack their land. ABC has reported that a non-executive chairman of Origin has said the company will do more to engage with Aboriginal people and consult with Traditional Owners, but there is still uncertainty as to whether the requests of Traditional Owners will eventuate, if it contrasts with the interests of big business.

Over the past 10 years, we can see that the NT Government has had a particular stance on mining, one that has benefits economically, but also, one that comes at the expense of not only the environment, but people’s health and culture. Aboriginal people’s health and culture. We are a people with a wealth of knowledge of the land; how it operates logistically and where its histories are embedded, but sadly, we are also a people with a long history of bearing the brunt of destructive government decisions.

 

 

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Grayson McCarthy-Grogan is an NITV Digital Producer and writes about Sports, Politics and Indigenous Affairs. For more articles by Grayson or to contact about stories, find him on Twitter @GraysonMcG