For the first time ever a federal parliamentary committee has met with Yanyuwa, Mara, Garrawa and Gudanji Traditional Owners to discuss the expansion of the McArthur River mine, after meeting with Elders at Magazine Hill on Tuesday.
Ilias Bakalla, Jennetta Quinn-Bates

5 May 2021 - 6:03 PM  UPDATED 6 May 2021 - 12:20 PM

Labor Senator Malarndirri McCarthy has described her mixed emotions, following a meeting between Traditional Owners and the Juukan Gorge inquiry.

Yanyuwa, Mara, Garrawa and Gudanji representatives appeared before the inquiry to express their ongoing concerns for the health of the McArthur River, threatened by a nearby mine, as part of the investigation into cultural heritage destruction. 

“I’m immensely proud to see a parliamentary committee listening to their concerns, but I’m sad because I crossed the floor 14 years ago to vote to protect the McArthur River and now I’m still asking the federal parliament to strengthen the protection laws.

Traditional Owners have similarly expressed “frustration and sadness” that they are still fighting to protect the McArthur River, 14 years after supreme court ruling in their favour.

“They’ve been saying to me ‘even when we win we still can that be?'" said Senator McCarthy, who accompanied them in their appearance. 

“The people here are fearful of what the expansion of the mine dump will mean for their sacred sites.”

The talks are being chaired by Warren Entsch, co-chaired by Warren Snowden and include Senators Patrick Dodson and Lidia Thorpe.  

On Tuesday, the inquiry heard from Waanyi and Alyawarre Elders advocating for the protection of a sacred site on their Country.

The area of Magazine Hill was given official amnesty from mining operations almost 20 years ago, but Elders say they too have been defending its protection ever since. 

“When we did the cultural awareness studies back then, we had numerous archaeologists that came in over the years and helped us... All archaeologists’ findings were that (the) place was of significant value to all Aboriginal people,” a Waanyi descendant said.

Waanyi Elder Glen Woods told the hearing, “When the agreement was first signed over 20 something years ago, it noted the community’s agreement that Magazine Hill would be preserved and protected from the mining companies regardless of which mining company comes in. Over years the mining companies changed hands. Every other mining company that came in has respected that decision from the past, until previously, and this is where we are today with this meeting.” Glen said.

Descendants and Elders from both tribes presented their arguments to support the protection of Magazine Hill, which the hearing was told holds storylines important to the dreaming of not just the Waanyi and Alyawarre people, but all Aboriginal people. They presented advice from numerous specialists who had inspected the site, including a team who came from France to do carbon dating.

Waanyi Elder Clarence Wardle argued, “Get rid of them! Get rid of them! Go back to the old people that run the show! Like the Native Title Holders who own the land should sit at the table and discuss all their matters, not anybody else who are wannabes who want this and don’t give a damn about their people.”

He continued to express his frustrations over the fight that started almost thirty years ago.

“Our old people are out in the cemetery now. The agreement that was made back then, in 1997 is still in existence. Why are they making other rules? Why are they going against the rules that have been put down by our Elders? By the people that said, yes, we’ll let you mine, provided you leave Magazine Hill where is. It’s very sad when they got to do that to us, when it’s already in black and white in front of them.” Said Clarence.

“They’re not even listening to our concerns. I want to tell them STOP! STOP!! We have all got to live here! And we’re the poorest people in this country and yet we got a billion- dollar hole 50kms away from the biggest community Doomadgee. 50kms! And we’re not even getting the scraps from it.” Said Elder Clarence Wardle.

Further north and the Jawoyn Traditional Owners in Kakadu National Park have locked the gate to the Gunlom area of the park after complaining of a lack of respect for their sacred sites.

It comes in the midst of a court battle between the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority and Parks Australia.

The AAPA alleges Parks Australia constructed an unauthorised walkway close to a key feature of a sacred men's site. 

It’s expected that the popular waterfall will close this week and will remain shut until the court case is settled.

Aboriginal groups support calls for a national standard on heritage protection
State-based Indigenous organisations agree a national standard is needed for better cultural heritage protection of significant and sacred sites.