The southern inland region of the Gulf of Carpentaria has been occupied by Indigenous people for more than 35 000 years. Whilst the McArthur River today is home to four main language groups, the Yanyuwa, Garrawa, Mara and Gurdanji people, other groups did not survive the brutal legacy of European settlement.
The Yanyuwa and Mara consider themselves ‘Saltwater People’ , and the Garrawa and Gurdanji ‘Freshwater People’. In the course of the campaign the groups have become increasingly united in their opposition to mine expansion and the river being diverted, despite wedge politics from both the NT Government, former mine operator Xstrata and now Glencore. Of these groups, the Yanyuwa are best known thanks in part, to their of their home country on the Sir Edward Pellow Islands, and in part due to the work of historians and anthropologists who have assisted in the documentation of Yanyuwa culture.
Traditional owners walking to Parliament House, Oct 2006 – Blocking McArthur River bridge in protest, Oct 2014
Traditional Owners views on the mine expansion – Traditional owners’ right of veto to stop the mine, enshrined in the Northern Territory Aboriginal Land Rights Act, was denied when large parcels of land including the McArthur River lead and zinc orebody, roads and port areas critical to the mine’s development were exempted from the original land claim in 1979. The company failed to negotiate an agreement or royalties following development of the project. In 2015 Traditional Owners finally succeeded in a Native Title claim over the mine site, but there remain no formal veto rights over the project including the recent Phase 3 expansion approval.
Decades since the mine first started operation it is clear that there remain many of the original concerns about the impacts of the project. In 2003, Harry Lansen, a senior traditional owner for the mine site and staunch opponent of the 2007 expansion discussed his opposition on ABC television’s Stateline program saying:
“It is no good. I will be sick if they cut the place, because my spirit is there. All my songs are across the river. I don’t want to see that thing happen in the McArthur River.”
Yanyuwa Traditional Owners living downstream of the mine and in the Sir Edward Pellow Islands have been extremely vocal in their opposition to the mine. Stephen Johnston, a Traditional Owner for Vanderlin Island has recently said:
“The Yanyuwa people in Borroloola are getting their islands back after 29 years (through a land claim settlement), only to have their river taken away. McArthur River Mining has not consulted Yanyuwa people or other Aboriginal language groups downstream of the mine. The NT Government must protect the rights of economically impoverished indigenous people and their country”.
On Tuesday September 25th the Booroloola Traditional Elders Group (BTEG), representing the Traditional Owners released these statements after meeting with Chris Natt, Minister for Mines and Energy, Northern Territory.
“The BTEG are united in their position that the McArthur River, Surprise Creek and Barney Creek must not be shifted from their current position”
“The Gurdanji people know that our gudgiga, our songs and stories, will be destroyed by the shifting of our creeks and rivers”
“The Yanyuwa people know that the McArthur River and our coast and islands are already being polluted with heavy metals. The pollution will only get worse if they shift the rivers.”
Today opposition to mining at McArthur River remains strong across the four groups, as evidence mounts of the mine’s escalating environmental and public health risks. At a 2014 Independent Monitor’s presentation in Borroloola on the environmental performance of the mine a letter signed by 150 Traditional Owners and Jungaii was presented to NT Government representatives from the Department of Mines and Energy.
The letter called for an immediate stop to production at the mine following revelations of heavy metal poisoning of fish in Barney Creek and massive acid-forming rock in the mine’s waste rock dump causing acid run off into waterways and belching toxic fumes.
The letter stated in part:
“Traditional Owner’s attempts to stop the mine from proceeding have been blocked time and again, and our warnings about the risks of contamination and destruction of sacred sites from the mine have been ignored by successive Federal and NT Governments. But now, our worse fears are coming true, with lead found in fish and waterways and the waste rock dump on fire, leaching acid into the surrounding land and rivers.”