In an acknowledgement of a decade-long campaign to protect a sacred Aboriginal site, Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley visited Butterfly Cave to hear the concerns of Awabakal women.

The Awabakal Butterfly Cave near Lake Macquarie, New South Wales has been under threat from a nearby housing development by the Roche Group, which has threatened to remove the privacy and native bushland of the sacred women’s site.

Campaign organiser, Annie Freer, started a change.org petition calling for Minister Ley to enforce the Declaration that was created to protect the site from such destruction.

After “pushing for her to come up for some time”, the Awabakal women and their allies were able to show Minister Ley around the site two weeks ago.

“I think that when you actually see the sights, and you’re actually surrounded by the bushland and you’ve actually gone down the journey path, which is what we took her down … you get a much better understanding of what the loss is actually going to be,” said Freer.

“I’m thankful for Minister Ley’s visit and hope that together we can protect this precious site once and for all,” added proud Awabakal woman, Anne Andrews.

Minister Ley told NIT she “gained a strong sense of their connection to the area” as well as the concerns of the Awabakal community, and received their petition, which now has over 164,000 signatures.

Freer said the community was able to express concerns about loss of culture and how Minister Ley can use her authority to afford better protection to the sacred area.

“We were able to talk to her about the loss of cultural activities because there’ll be no privacy and the site will actually be exposed to men and domestic animals and rubbish—it will just be completely desecrated,” she said.

“We said the basic thing we want from her is to enforce the terms of the Declaration. We also want her to consider varying terms of the Declaration, so we’ve got a better level of protection.

“What we’re really trying to say to the Minister over and over again, is that Roche Group do not lose very much. They’ve got developments stretching up and down the coast. We just want this small bit of traditional land left alone.”

Freer also stressed the importance of protecting the borders of the site, with developments originally proposed to be 100 metres away from the cave.

She said the Appletree Grove Estate housing developments have already caused damage to the aquifers, which are crucial to the cave’s survival.

“Having that constant fight about border availability was really important. There was a relatively constant stream of water that came across the top of the cave and made a little waterfall of fresh water.

“When [developers] first came out and set up their work compounds and really heavy machinery, they smashed through at least one or two of the aquifers that support the cave. So, what’s happened now is the water has changed course already and no longer goes over the same lip of the cave,” said Freer.

With the flow of water to the cave being interrupted by housing developments, the cave is at risk from drying up, cracking and falling down.

Following her visit to the cave, Minister Ley went to meet with Roche Group, who she said have “been previously advised by the Department of the need to comply with the Declaration”.

She did not comment further on what was discussed at the meeting.

Minister Ley has the authority to vary terms of the Declaration, which Freer said could end up being a double-edged sword.

“She could go away and make changes to the actual boundaries of the Declaration to incorporate the journey path and the aquifers and move the development further away from our site.

“It could work either way. She can vary it for us, or she could vary it against us.”

Minister Ley told NIT the Declaration will be enforced and the cave will be protected. She could not comment further on whether the terms of the Declaration will be varied.

NIT has attempted to contact Roche Group to confirm how they intend to abide by the Declaration. No response has been received.

By Grace Crivellaro