• Traditional Owners say a plan to build weirs on the Ashburton River would be devastate their spiritual connection to the land. (Supplied: Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation)Source: Supplied: Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation
First Nations groups say an appeal by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest against the WA Government's decision to block development plans around the Ashburton River could irrevocably damage the spiritual connections to their homelands.
Sarah Collard

29 Mar 2021 - 3:51 PM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2021 - 5:50 PM

An appeal against the WA government’s decision to knock back an application for the construction of ten weirs on the Ashburton River is being strongly opposed by Thalanyji Traditional Owners.

Tattarang, the company of billionaire and philanthropist Andrew Forrest, is appealing the 2019 decision by former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt to block his proposal. 

The river runs through Forrest’s cattle station 'Minderoo'.

The case is being heard this week in Perth's State Administrative Tribunal, but it's expected a final decision will take months to reach. 

The WA government refused to grant permission under section 18 of the state's heritage protection act — only the third time the government has refused to grant permission under the act. 

Weirs would cause 'spiritual' harm

Traditional Owner Trudy Hayes said the plans could irrevocably damage their spiritual connection to the land. 

“The river is where we do our learning,” the Thalanyji woman said in a statement to NITV News. 

"The river is everything, it’s part of us. And it’s connected with everyone.”

“The spiritual impact of damming the waterway must not be ignored.” 

Ms Haynes said the river is a place of cultural and spiritual learning, and is of great significance to the Thalanyji people.  

“Just like someone going to the altar in a church or making the sign of a cross...We were taught to look after Country, and Country would look after us.” Ms Hayes said. 

Thalanyji Traditional Owner Frances Hayes told NITV news in a statement that the company must respect their ties to Country, and work with them. 

“Andrew says he loves the country and people and wants to work with us.” Trudy Hayes said.

“If he truly does then why didn’t he partner with the Thalanyji when he purchased Minderoo in 2009 so together we could protect the land and our heritage for future generations of Thalanyji and Forrest families?”

Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation (BTAC) representing the Thalanyji People, said they are ‘deeply concerned’ and are sceptical about any potential benefits of the irrigation scheme.

WA’s heritage laws are under scrutiny after the legal destruction of the 46,000 year old Juukan Gorge caves with the Traditional Owners the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples also raising their concerns over the proposal. 

PKKP: 'Warlu' snake must not be 'blocked' 

The PKKP said the proposed works could have a devastating impact on the spiritual and cultural lives of Traditional Owners who call the area home. 

“Any impact on a river downstream will have a devastating effect all along the river and forever change the entire ecosystem for the Traditional Owners upstream.” 

The PKKP peoples said they hold grave concerns about the impacts on songlines and Dreamings which could be affected by the plans and that any disturbance of the river flow would be harmful. 

“The creation of the river by the Warlu (snake) means that it must be free to flow, and the fish and eels can travel along it,” the statement read. 

“The spiritual impact of damming the waterway must not be ignored.” 

In a statement, Tattarang said they were in discussions with the state government and Traditional Owners. 

“Our strong desire is to work in a cooperative manner with the Thalanyji People – the Traditional Custodians of the land – to preserve heritage at Minderoo Station and the natural landscape, whilst developing sustainable agriculture in a challenging environment currently experiencing prolonged drought conditions."