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Alarm as miners seek approval to impact heritage sites without Traditional Owners' consent

Giovanni Torre -

A Western Australian Traditional Owners group has expressed "profound disappointment" over a mining company's Section 18 application to impact two sacred sites, submitted without the group's content.

The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation told National Indigenous Times that Equinox Resources Ltd submitted the application without seeking consent or consulting with them.

The Native Title holders noted that the Equinox project is "on the doorstep of the iconic Karijini National Park", and that more than 15,000 people have signed an online petition to ask Equinox to "reconsider their plans to damage the area".

Wintawari said they only learned through the media that Equinox had lodged a section 18 notice seeking ministerial approval to impact an area of land that retains cultural significance to Aboriginal people throughout the Pilbara.

"The Wintawari Traditional Owners are extremely disappointed that Equinox is yet to meet with the elders to discuss their section 18 notice through an implementation committee to be established under an agreement between them and Wintawari," a spokesperson said.

Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation said that it proposed a meeting with Equinox in Karratha on Thursday, 29 February to discuss the section 18 notice, adding that the company "has apparently rejected the opportunity to engage with Wintawari and the Traditional Owners through the processes provided for in their agreement".

The Wintawari spokesperson told National Indigenous Times that the Equinox CEO is not able to meet with WGAC to consult on the section 18 application because he has gone overseas until 8 April.

"This indicates to WGAC that they are not serious about consulting with WGAC about our cultural heritage concerns. It is beyond belief that Equinox Resources submit a section 18 application without any consultation with the native title holders, in contravention of the state's Section 18 Consultation Policy and Guidelines, and then their CEO heads off overseas for six weeks making himself unavailable to discuss the serious concerns that the Wintawari Elders have about their cultural heritage being destroyed," the spokesperson said.

"It is astounding that a CEO of an ASX listed resources company can demonstrate such disrespect to the traditional owners and an appalling lack of judgement."

Company allegedly ignored heritage report

The Traditional Owners said Equinox has still not responded to a cultural heritage report provided to them by the native title holders "nearly a year ago" asking that Equinox avoid two sacred sites in the mining lease area.

"Rather than engaging and talking with the native title holders to find a way to accommodate their drilling in a culturally sensitive way, they have decided to seek permission to destroy the sites," the spokesperson said.

"Wintawari believes that Equinox's approach is entirely inconsistent with what is required under the government's section 18 guidelines published in November 2023. The process under its agreement with Equinox needs to be followed.

"The Eastern Guruma people have not experienced this level of disrespect toward their cultural heritage from a mining company for more than a decade. It is an alarming development that a company can disregard established ESG principles and knowingly choose not to engage with the traditional owners before lodging a Section 18."

Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation said it hoped WA's Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Dr Tony Buti, "defends his recently published consultation policy and insists Equinox adhere to it and consider the views of the Traditional Owners who regularly use the land for cultural purposes".

The Traditional Owners also noted that the Equinox project "has potentially significant environmental issues".

"The project area is adjacent to the iconic Karijini National Park and a vital source of ground and surface water that nourishes the famous Hamersley Gorge."

A spokesperson from the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage confirmed to National Indigenous Times that they have received an application from Equinox Resources for a Section 18 Consent under the Aboriginal Heritage Act for a drilling programme as part of their Hamersley Iron Ore Project.

"The application will be subject to assessment, including a procedural fairness check with the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation representing the native title holders of the area," they said.

"Applications for approval must be supported by consultation with the appropriate native title party.

"It will then be considered by the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Committee who will make a final recommendation on whether to grant consent."

A spokesperson for Equinox Resources told National Indigenous Times that the company is undertaking "a multi-pronged engagement strategy to responsibly advance the development of its 100%-owned Hamersley Iron Ore Project", located on a granted Mining Lease 60km north of Tom Price in WA's Pilbara region.

"This includes ongoing engagement with the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation as well as other key stakeholders including the Western Australian government, the Shire of Ashburton, local members and community leaders," they said.

"Equinox will pursue responsible development pathways and practices that are in full compliance with State and Federal… regulations and which are aimed at minimising the impact on the environment.

"The company will continue to engage with the WGAC under the terms of the existing Native Title Agreement (Agreement), which dates back to 2014, and to seek to reach an accommodation which results in the Project being progressed."

The company spokesperson said that "(if) WGAC is not prepared to honour its agreement, the Equinox Board has decided to use the mechanisms available under the existing Agreement and the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) to progress the Project".

"Two heritage surveys were conducted on the lease, and no Aboriginal sites were identified. Following those surveys, WGAC negotiated and signed a Native Title Deed with the project owners, and in November 2014, the Mining Lease for the Hamersley Project was granted as a partial conversion of the Exploration Licence.

"Since acquiring the Mining Lease, a further survey was undertaken within the Mining Lease. WGAC engaged Yulur Heritage Services (Yulur), a wholly-owned subsidiary of WGAC, to complete the survey and reporting. Yulur appointed WGAC's Chief Operating Officer as the consultant ethnographer for the survey and author of the Yulur survey report. The Yulur survey report identified two new ethnographic, previously unidentified, Aboriginal sites. The WGAC have not registered these two new ethnographic sites at the Register of Aboriginal Sites."

Sites verified by anthropologists and Traditional Owners

The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation spokesperson told National Indigenous Times that these two sites "have been verified by two anthropologists and 16 different Traditional Owners".

The Equinox spokesperson said company rrepresentatives have met with the WGAC Board "on a number of occasions, where various options were put forward to address WGAC concerns. Unfortunately, no consensus could be reached".

The company spokesperson said Equinox "remains committed" to attending meetings with WGAC so that timely consultations occur about the Hamersley Iron Ore Project.

It was via a Section 18 Application under WA's now 52-year old Aboriginal heritage legislation that Rio Tinto legally destroyed the sacred sites of Juukan Gorge in May 2020.

The destruction of the Gorge and subsequent outcry, inquiries and findings sparked the drafting and passage of new Aboriginal heritage legislation in Western Australia, which was criticised by many Traditional Owner groups as too weak and ultimately abandoned after a backlash, with the 1972 Act reverting to effect with some amendments.

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