An ancient valley in a region of Australia found to hold secrets of Aboriginal occupation dating back to the Ice Age is at risk of being destroyed by a rail line planned by billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group, according to traditional owners.
The Native Title body for the Eastern Guruma people of Western Australia’s East Pilbara, the Wintawari Aboriginal Corporation, has asked federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg to urgently act to protect the valley.
His department told NIT Mr Frydenberg had appointed a “reporter” or investigator to look into the matter.
The Wintawari Aboriginal Corporation claims the case has been botched by the WA Labor Government and has not ruled out asking for a legal review by the courts if proper procedures aren’t followed by the government and its advisory body, the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee.
The valley lies at the base of Spear Hill, or Ngajanha Marntaa, a traditional meeting place for Aboriginal people who travelled to the site near the Hamersley Gorge and Karijini National Park to harvest wood for ceremonies.
The valley shares the same traditional name as the hill it abuts.
Thousands of years of history
Wintawari director Tony Bevan said the valley contains at least 50 important sites, including rock shelters and ceremonial storage places that had so far been dated back 10,300 years.
Archaeological work was continuing to determine if the secrets of the valley were even older, he said.
“We’ve done some preliminary dating and the information we have is 10,300 years old in one of the rock shelters,” Mr Bevan said.
“But that date is only halfway down the pit. We’re waiting for another type of testing to come back, which will hopefully indicate it is older.”
Mr Bevan said Wintawari wanted FMG to re-route about three kilometres of a planned rail line — part of the miner’s $1.5 billion Eliwana Mine plans — so that it did not go through the valley.
Rock shelters in other areas in the Pilbara have been found to contain rare artefacts showing continuous Aboriginal occupation dating back 40,000 years.
Two years ago archaeologists discovered grinding stones and 48 other artefacts in a rock shelter deep in the heart of mining giant Rio Tinto’s iron ore operations near Tom Price, also in the Pilbara.
The battle over Spear Hill Valley comes after the Aboriginal group says a WA government decision in November clears the way for the FMG rail line to proceed through the valley at the same time as approval was given for Wintawari to determine the importance of the site.
The WA Government, however, says the November decision relates to the Solomon mine and its infrastructure and the Eliwana Rail Project is still with the state’s Environmental Protection Agency.
Wintawari chairman Glen Camille said the WA Government had “bungled”.
He said traditional owners were pragmatic about balancing economic development and Aboriginal heritage protection, but in this case they had been denied fairness.
“Eastern Guruma are beneficiaries of mining, but FMG’s current expansion to facilitate Eliwana must have consideration for our cultural heritage places,” Mr Camille said.
“The facts are clear. On the same day, that the ACMC and the Department for Planning, Lands and Heritage provided us with the required permits to allow work to determine and document the significance of the area, to help inform the minister’s decision on the FMG application, the ACMC and the department also discussed and then recommended to the minister that FMG should be granted consent to destroy these sites.
“At best, this reflects administrative chaos within the ACMC and the department.”
Mr Camille also questioned why FMG was given the go-ahead before the report on the site’s significance was ready on March 1.
Mr Bevan said they had asked Mr Frydenberg to make an emergency declaration to protect the area and also appoint an investigator to look into its long-term protection.
He said the matter was becoming increasingly urgent.
“FMG are wanting to go ahead and do some geotechnical testing, so dig test pits along the railway alignment,” Mr Bevan said.
“That means they will go into that Spear Hill area and dig a 2m x 1m trench.”
In a statement on February 20, a spokesman for Mr Frydenberg’s Department of Environment and Energy said a reporter, or investigator, had been appointed.
Further applications from Wintawari were being considered.
“The department will work with the reporter to ensure an expeditious and thorough process,” it said.
“The exact timing of the process depends on the volume and complexity of information contained in the application and responses from affected parties, the nature of consultation with affected parties, the extent of requirement for scientific and archaeological investigations.”
Act in need of reform, says Wyatt
WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt did not directly respond to questions from NIT about whether the handling of the Spear Hill Valley matter had been botched nor whether he was confident the rail line would not destroy a significant site.
Instead his office issued a statement in which he said he would like to see WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act reformed.
“What this issue shows is that we are currently working with an outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act, which all sides seem to find unsatisfying and that is why I am committed to reform,” he said in the statement.
His office said the Eliwana railway was being assessed by WA’s Environmental Protection Agency and Mr Wyatt would be constrained from making a decision on it “even if there was a section 18 linked to it”.
The Department for Planning Land and Heritage said in a statement that FMG had made an application to the ACMC under section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act to use land for its Solomon Mine and infrastructure.
“Having considered the information, including submissions made by stakeholders in response to the department’s procedural fairness process, the ACMC resolved to advise the minister to approve the purpose, subject to providing the WGAC reasonable access to the land to conduct excavation of Aboriginal sites approved by the Registrar.
“A permit under section 16 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 was issued to the WGAC by the Registrar on the advice of the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee on 22 September 2017.
“The permit was to enable the WGAC to collect Aboriginal cultural material from the surface of 10 sites for the purpose of archaeological investigation. The permit consented to test pitting for the purposes of collecting materials and for the WGAC to manage the cultural material collected.
“The permit was valid for a period of 50 days, with a report on the outcome of the permitted works to be provided by the WGAC to the Registrar by 30 November 2017. At the request of the WGAC, the department has agreed to extend the period for reporting until 1 March 2018.”
New FMG CEO backs process
Fortescue Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Gaines said FMG had worked closely with the Eastern Guruma people and Aboriginal heritage professionals to identify important Aboriginal cultural heritage sites.
“On the basis of information gathered during this process, an agreed boundary was placed around Spear Hill and Fortescue designed its railway to stay outside of the boundary,” Ms Gaines said.
“Fortescue secured consent from the state to use the land outside of Spear Hill and we will continue to work constructively with Eastern Guruma.
“This project is important for Fortescue and the state and will provide significant employment during construction and operation, with a capital cost of US$1-1.5 billion.
“Fortescue has always sought to work cooperatively with Aboriginal people to ensure heritage is appropriately managed.”
Ms Gaines said FMG was open and ready to contribute to any review made by the Federal Government.
The ACMC was also contacted for comment.