The South Australian Premier has approved exploratory drilling at an Aboriginal sacred site, Lake Torrens.

Premier and Minister for Indigenous Affairs Steven Marshall granted Kelaray, a subsidiary of Argonaut Resources, the ability to complete mineral exploration at the lake with consideration to environmental guidelines. The approval was a granted between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

Lake Torrens, despite being a sacred site, does not have Native Title protections. Despite having multiple claims to the site, a 2016 court case determined that no Aboriginal group would have their Native Title rights recognised.

Kelaray applied to the South Australian Government under Section 23 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1988 (SA) which enables the Minister for Indigenous Affairs to approve projects that may damage or destroy Aboriginal sites.

Lake Torrens is a sacred site to the Kokatha, Barngarla, Adnyamathanha and Kuyani peoples.

Andrew Starkey, Kokatha senior lore man and site card holder for Lake Torrens said the Lake is a place of high significance to Kokatha people.

“It is a very important area, for us it makes up part of the natural boundary between us and the Flinders Ranges,” he said.

“Being such a large lake, it is significant in the mythological stories that Kokatha hold. There are other groups as well that had an interest.

“There are Storylines and Songlines that come from the north, from the west and up from the south. It is an area that is important in a number of major Storylines.”

Starkey said Kokatha Traditional Owners have been fighting for the lake for years.

“We half expect this was going to be the case, we have fought it since 2018,” he said.

“Relationships between Kokatha have been strained, we managed to hold them up for seven years.

“At the end of the day Aboriginal people always tend to lose out because the dollar comes first.”

Starkey has been involved in heritage protection his entire life and holds out hope that Lake Torrens remains untouched.

“We just want them to pack up and go away. What startles us is, is here is Government giving access to Country, particularly the lake systems. The mythological significance of those lake systems is huge,” he said.

“To see what has happened in such a short period of time is pretty confronting.

“All we are asking for is to be heard and to experience our culture instead of it being dug up and sold off.”

South Australian Native Title Services CEO Keith Thomas told NIT the approval was a disappointing outcome.

“I think it is a sad day for Aboriginal people in South Australia that another site has been set up to be destroyed and damaged,” Thomas said.

“It is not something that Aboriginal people will rejoice in. This is the Premier making his decisions about an Aboriginal site.”

South Australian Native Title Services will be investigating approval processes and working with community to halt the drilling.

“The consequences could be anything … this is another piece of the fabric of Aboriginal culture that has been destroyed and it’s just whittling away at reducing and marginalising Aboriginal culture in Australia,” Thomas said.

“It was protected for so long … it’s only since the Liberals came in that they have granted access to those lakes. It is very frustrating as they are very important cultural sites in South Australia.”

Thomas noted the need for Aboriginal heritage protections to change nationally.

“Since the destruction of Juukan Gorge everybody is talking about that and how we can better protect Aboriginal sites, it seems we are a long way from that still,” he said.

In a statement to the ASX post-approval, Argonaut said the drilling will target iron oxide copper-gold mineralisation similar to that done at Olympic Dam, Carrapateena and “BHP’s recent Oak Dam discovery”.

Kelaray will use purpose-built drill mats on the surface of the lake to protect the salt crust and vehicles entering the drilling site will use temporary ground protection mats.

Despite the fight to save the lake continuing, Starkey is concerned about the impact the drilling will have on the continuation of culture for his people.

“I was lucky enough to learn my culture from senior lore men and women that walked out of the bush and met Europeans for the first time. They’re the people I’ve been with most of my life. But sadly they aren’t with us anymore,” he said.

“It’s that knowledge that has been passed on that we want to pass on. It is a hard thing to pass on because a big part of our culture is land.

“If it has been desecrated, we can’t take our young men and women out to Country, we can’t pass on our stories — what hope is there for us?”

NIT contacted Premier Steven Marshall’s office for comment but did not receive a response before time of publication.

By Rachael Knowles