A group of Awabakal women are continuing a decade-long battle to protect the sacred Aboriginal women’s site, Butterfly Cave, from being damaged by developers near Newcastle, NSW.

Almost 144,000 people have signed an online petition started over three years ago, calling on the Federal Minister for Environment, Sussan Ley, to intervene on the development plans.

The Awabakal Butterfly Cave, located in the Lake Macquarie suburb of West Wallsend, is part of an area of land being developed by Hammersmith Management, owned by property developers, Roche Group. Stages one to six of the Appletree Grove estate development have already been completed, with fears of stage seven and nine to go ahead.

Annie Freer, the campaign coordinator, said despite the site being legally protected by a Declaration under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984, the cultural significance and food sources at the site are still under threat from the developers.

“If you put houses either side of the cave, we literally lose everything. We lose the bush, we lose the berries, we lose the birds, we lose privacy and we lose the water,” Freer said.

Freer stressed the importance of protecting rare women’s sites and stories.

“We don’t know about a whole lot of women’s sites. But we do know about this one and it’s still in a position where it can be saved,” Freer said.

“We need to make sure that it is saved because once they build over our journey path, they’ve not only destroyed the bush land, there’s going to be privacy issues.”

The seclusion of the site is also significant as it has been used for thousands of years as a private place for women’s traditional and sacred practices, which would be stripped if the surrounding bushland and vegetation were removed.

The cultural significance of the Cave was recognised by the Federal Government in January 2019 when a Declaration under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 was made after the online petition gained traction.

The petition said the women “thought that securing a Federal Declaration would be enough” to keep developers off their cultural site. However, Lake Macquarie City Council has approved amended consent for Roche Group’s Appletree Grove development plans.

The next step is for council to approve a Construction Management Plan.

Minister Ley said the proposed development will need to comply with the prohibitions and restrictions outlined in the Declaration and that significant penalties will apply if they are breached.

“The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment has advised the proponent, Hammersmith Management Pty Ltd, of its obligations to comply with the Declaration,” Minister Ley told NIT.

Under the Declaration, a person must not act in, on or near the declared area that will or is likely to injure the declared area.

A person must also not pass through, over or enter the area or conduct activity that is likely to damage or deface any rock or land in the area.

Corporations can be fined significant penalties of up to $110,000 if the terms of the Declaration are contravened.

However, the group of women fear that such penalties would be insignificant to a wealthy corporation.

“It all boils down to the fact that Roche Group are really powerful. They’re worth $1.42 billion,” Freer said.

Roche Group was contacted for comment but did not respond before time of publication to clarify details of their development plans and how they will abide by the Declaration.

Minister Ley declined to answer to how she would actively enforce the Declaration.

For more information about the battle for Butterfly Cave, visit: https://www.savethebutterflycave.info/.

By Grace Crivellaro