• Northern Territory Traditional Owners Josie Davey, Jack Green and Casey Davey travelled 1000km to Darwin to testify to the federal parliamentary inquiry. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Yanyuwa, Garrwa and Gudanji Traditional Owners have travelled 1000km to raise their fears that sacred sites are slowly being erased by Glencore's McArthur River Mine.
Karen Michelmore

18 Jun 2021 - 4:33 PM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2021 - 8:30 PM

Northern Territory Traditional Owners say they feel like "sardines in a tin" with sacred sites near Borroloola slowly being "erased" by mining operations.

A group of elders and their families travelled 1000km from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Darwin to send a clear message to the federal parliamentary inquiry investigating the destruction of ancient rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in WA, and other sites around Australia.

They have been fighting to protect sacred sites and country from the impacts of Glencore's lead and zinc McArthur River mine for decades.

"We want them to stop what they are doing, we want our sacred sites protected and we want them to clean it up," Gudanji Traditional Owner Casey Davey told today's hearing.

"Don't treat our Country like this."

'I can't go back there'

Members of the federal parliamentary inquiry visited Borroloola last month, and Senator Pat Dodson told the hearing the mining company had indicated it was prepared to enter into an agreement with Traditional Owners going forward.

But Garrwa elder Jack Green said there had been nothing discussed since.

"No one came after you mob were there," he said.

After the hearing, Glencore issued a statement saying it had engaged with the Northern Land Council (NLC) to negotiate an Indigenous Land Use Agreement through a "fully inclusive process" with Traditional Owners.

"Glencore will engage with the NLC to hold a community meeting in Borroloola to provide Traditional Owners with an update on ILUA process." it read.

Gudanji Traditional Owner Josie Davey said locals had not been able to visit sites within the mining lease.

"I'm speak because I'm worried now that I can't go back there," she told the hearing.

"They have got these other TOs (Traditional Owners), we are not being recognised. I would like to be recognised by this McArthur River Mine.

"They don't talk to us, they don't ever come and let us know what they are doing. We feel like we are left behind, me and my father."

Children will take up the fight

Yanyuwa woman Joy Priest said her father had officially raised concerns about the mine in November 1978.

"Forty years later that mining company has still got us like sardines in a tin and they have still got all these interests protected but we are left with all our sacred sites unprotected," Ms Priest said.

"We have been fighting for four decades and now we have brought our children here to continue the fight."

Mr Green told the inquiry about two instances about a decade ago when the mining company called police on locals who wanted to protest to be able to return to Country.

"When we first went out there we did a protest to get back to visit (the) sites, we got pulled up by the mining company and they called the police in." Mr Green said.

He said he worried he would be shot at if he tried to go past the gates.

"They should recognise this is our Country. We have got songs for the country, we have got names for the Country."


Losses are happening "very slowly"

In a statement, he added that sacred sites within Glencore’s McArthur River Mine lease near Borroloola were being slowly erased.

"Our sacred sites are not being blown up, the damage is happening very slowly," he said.

"It’s a slow creep with the waste rock dump getting closer and closer to the sacred sites each day.

"The river is already being slowly poisoned, and it will take 1000 years to clean up properly.  But we know that won’t happen, the company will be gone.”

Mr Green called for stronger laws to protect sacred sites.

"It has to do this now before there is more damage and more hurt across Australia," he said.

Glencore's statement following the hearing said the mining company had listened carefully to the testimony of the elders, and acknowledged that historical actions remained a source of sadness.

"We want to work with Traditional Owners to provide access to and continue to improve management and protection of cultural heritage and sacred sites on our mining lease." it read.


Senator praises meeting with Traditional Owners, condemns ongoing heritage threats
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.