• Josie Davey and Jack Green have fought against the McArthur River Mine for decades. They've fronted a parliamentary inquiry fearing the loss of sacred sites.. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
The controversial McArthur River Mine has entered into talks with the NLC to negotiate an Indigenous Land Use Agreement but some are sceptical of mining giant Glencore's intentions.
Keira Jenkins

The Point
7 Apr 2021 - 4:21 PM  UPDATED 7 Apr 2021 - 4:21 PM

The McArthur River Mine says it has entered into talks with the Northern Land Council and Traditional Owners to negotiate an Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) for their Gulf Country lead and zinc mine.

In a statement to NITV's The Point, McArthur River Mining General Manager Steven Rooney said the negotiations will involve "broad consultation with Traditional Owners on a variety of matters, including sacred sites and heritage protection."

"We encourage Traditional Owners to get involved and engage by contacting the NLC to ensure their voices are heard," the statement said.

The history of the mine is one littered with controversy, with a number of environmental incidents causing concern for the local Gudanji, Garawa, Yanwuya and Mara people, who have fought for decades against the mine's operations.

The Northern Territory Government's decision to slash the mine's environmental security bond from $519 million to $400 million has also been in the spotlight.

Traditional Owners are suing the Territory Government over the decision. 

The Northern Land Council also lodged a compensation claim against the NT Government on behalf of the Gudanji, Yanyuwa and Yanwuya-Mara people over damages to their Country, on the mining lease area.

A recent UNSW report found that 22 sacred sites on or near the mine site were at risk of damage from mining operations, including the sacred Barramundi Dreaming site, which sits next to a waste rock dump.

Glencore had applied to expand the dump in order to stabilise it, following its spontaneous combustion in 2014, which lead to toxic fumes.

The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) rejected the application over concerns not enough had been done to mitigate damage to the Barramundi Dreaming site, and that sufficient consultation with Traditional Owners had not occurred. 

The miner appealed the rejection decision to the NT Government.

NT Heritage Minister Chansey Paech was unavailable for an interview, but provided a statement to The Point, saying he was "currently conducting a Ministerial Review of AAPA's decision". 

“No decision will be made about the MRM4 archaeological site until the conditions set out by the previous Minister for Tourism and Culture under the terms of the Heritage Act 2011 have been met," it said.

“This includes the finalisation of processes under the Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989."

McArthur River Mine said it has requested that their appeal to the Minister be "suspended to enable discussions [about an ILUA] to take place" with the NLC. 

"In the meantime, we remain committed to complying with all current approvals from the Northern Territory and Australian Governments as well as the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority," they said.

"All sacred and cultural heritage sites, including Damangani, remain protected in line with current approvals from the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority. All activity related to our waste rock facility is within the set boundaries stipulated under our current approvals."

'Cowboy mining companies'

Labor MP Warren Snowdon, a member of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia which conducted the inquiry into the destruction at Juukan Gorge, said he is pleased to see the miner opening negotiations with the NLC.

"If this desire to properly negotiate an ILUA with the Northern Land Council on behalf of the Traditional Owners is true, then that gives us some hope," he said.

"I think that the Traditional Owners ought to look at that process in a positive light. Nevertheless I can understand their scepticism because of they way in which they've been treated in the past.

"... if I were them, I think I would be sceptical as well."

Mr Snowdon said the committee plans to travel to Borroloola to meet with Traditional Owners and Glencore next month.

He told The Point that mining companies must do better in negotiating with First Nations people.

"The days of having cowboy mining companies operating in the Gulf are over," Mr Snowdon said.

"The world needs to recognise that Juukan Gorge has put a spotlight on mining companies right across the country - and not only mining companies, but people wanting to develop on Aboriginal land, close to sacred sites, or potentially damage sacred sites.

"The light has been shone on it and the days are gone where you could do what you like. It's now a process where it's got to be open, transparent and Aboriginal interests must be properly protected, and properly involved."

Traditional Owners awaiting NT Heritage Minister's decision on future of sacred sites
The Gundaji, Garawa, Mara and Yanyuwa people have been fighting against the McArthur River Mine for years. Now they're waiting for the NT Heritage Minister to decide whether to approve an expansion of the mine's waste rock dump, which they say will impact a sacred Barramundi Dreaming site.