• The Gulkula mine site in Arnhem Land (Ryan Liddle)Source: Ryan Liddle
The Yolŋu people are celebrating the success of their Gulkula mine, but what happens when it closes?
Ryan Liddle

The Point
2 Nov 2018 - 3:05 PM  UPDATED 5 Nov 2018 - 6:04 PM

The Gumatj Corporation of North East Arnhem land pulled off an Australian first when they opened their Aboriginal owned and operated bauxite mine. 

But 50 years ago the community was vehemently opposed mining, asserting Yolŋu people’s ownership of the land with the historic Yirrkala Bark Petitions sent to federal parliament.

“My grandfather was fighting for land rights in 1960 because he loved this place and there was lots of sacred areas and songlines that he was trying to protect and our culture and our lore,” Ishmael Marika told The Point.

Senior Traditional Owner and Gumatj Corporation deputy chairman, Mr Djawa Yunupingu, explains the shift in sentiment that allowed the mine to go ahead.

“Years ago when the first mining company came we never had proper negotiations with the Traditional Owners, the mining company never did that, they never talked about it, never agreed to anything,” he said.

The Gulkula mine sits on the Dhupuma Plateau, located 1,000 kilometres east of Darwin and some 40km from the nearest town of Nhulunbuy.

It runs as a satellite mine - feeding bauxite, the source of aluminium, into the massive Rio Tinto mining operation a 30-minute drive down the coast.

“We just waited for the right day, the right moment ... and it a dawned a new beginning for us and we thought let’s do this mining business,” Mr Djawa Yunupingu said.

While the mine was allowed to go ahead, the Gumatj Corporation now also needs to plan for the mine's closure.

In 2014 it was announced Rio Tinto would begin curtailing operations in the region, starting with the Gove alumina refinery.

The Gumatj Corporation are expecting the site to cease operations completely in the next eight-to-10 years.

"It will have a huge impact on us because one, we won’t have statutory royalties, and two, there will be no mining agreement royalties. I guess we have to focus on our own future” Mr Yunupingu said.

The Gumatj Corporation have been planning for the closure by looking at other means to create wealth and employment opportunities, such as cattle farming and the possible construction of Australia’s first commercial space centre. 

While the mine is open, rehabilitating the landscape affected by the mining process will also be a key focus.

“Nurseries are a very important part of mining because when they do the cleaning up, start digging the soil up, the bauxite itself, there’s nothing left here," Mayila Wunungmurra said.

"So we collect the seeds from a particular area where they’ve dug down and this is putting the plant back into the area where it came from.”

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