Amid the Australian Government’s bid for a ‘gas-led recovery’ beginning in the Beetaloo Basin, Native Title holders have taken back their power with the establishment of a new negotiating body.

Aiming to stop the industry from progressing on their land, the new Prescribed Body Corporate (PBC)—Nurrdalinji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation—will allow Native Title holders on Daly Waters to take back control of their negotiating rights.

The move by Traditional Owners from nine communities across the Beetaloo Basin was sparked by the Federal Government’s plan to develop the Basin as the first of five in an attempt to regenerate the economy.

For years, Native Title holders have dealt with frustrating communication with Origin Energy, which holds the gas exploration permits over most of the Native Title area in question.

In deciding the way forward, a group of over 45 Native Title holders met at the end of September to discuss ways in which their communities could again rely on traditional decision-making processes that honour the advice of the Jungai (cultural police).

Janey Dixon, an artist and senior Mudburra woman from the Marlinja community, said the formation of the PBC was “a long time coming” for the communities involved.

“It’s important for us to have our own association, so that [the communities] can all talk as one body. That way we can have our own say when it comes to mining,” Ms Dixon said.

“We just had a little meeting to talk about each of the communities and formed a group as one Country to represent every community. We made the body so that communities, leaders and Traditional Owners can have our own say.”

The Native Title Act 1993 requires Native Title groups to be represented by a PBC that facilitates all interactions with third parties including governments, miners and developers.

Unlike the rest of Australia, Native Title groups across the Northern Territory were effectively controlled by one overarching PBC, the Top End Default.

Managed by the Northern Land Council, it was the nominal PBC for 70 separate Native Title determinations.

Nurrdalinji will now become the nominated PBC for the nine communities involved.

Ms Dixon said it’s time the NLC listened to Traditional Owners on the matter, instead of speaking for them.

“We don’t want NLC to get involved with us, but we do want them to listen. That’s why we formed our own PBC,” she said.

Ms Dixon said Traditional Owners’ main concern is water supply, with fears that fracking would infiltrate supplies across the region.

Amelia Telford, Bundjalung woman and National Director of the Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network, said communities across the Territory are worried about what future gas projects will mean for their water sources.

“You only have to look overseas to see how damaging and risky this is. No human being can survive without water, and that’s something we can all agree on,” she said.

“It’s unfair that remote Aboriginal communities are on the frontline of this when it has been banned in places around the world.”

Telford said regions like the Northern Territory that experience wet seasons and monsoons are especially at risk due to the wastewater associated with the fracking process.

“There are no substantial mechanisms or infrastructures in place to deal with toxic wastewater. Companies have said they will store it in evaporation ponds, but that is outrageous—as soon as we get a big flood, there’s no way to guarantee the toxic water won’t end up contaminating drinking water,” she said.

“Companies say ‘fracking is being considered in this specific place’, but if the water is poisoned there, there will be flow on effects that impact communities downstream too.”

Telford also said gas projects like Beetaloo Basin have a direct impact on remote Aboriginal communities, and that communities are prepared to do whatever it takes to protect their land and stay on Country.

“Whether it’s fracking, heatwaves, drought or climate change, communities in Northern Territory and the rest of the country are being put in positions when they’re potentially going to be forced to move off Country,” she said.

She said the issue also speaks to the sacred connections between Country and community.

“When our Country is hurting, and being destroyed in any way, people feel that. We’re not just seeing the impacts—it goes deeper than just climate change,” she said.

“Ultimately, right now Country is sick, and we are sick.”

Ms Dixon agreed.

“[Fracking is] just destroying all of our nature, and the motherhood of the whole of Australia. We don’t want our sacred sites to be destroyed, we want to keep them safe and covered. It’s really important for us,” she said.

While the road ahead is long, Ms Dixon said the Native Title holders are hopeful because of the implementation of the new PBC.

Telford said the announcement is an “inspiring example of communities standing up and fighting back to ensure self-determination”.

“Leadership stemming from our community is not only necessary, but required. We are the ones being first and worst affected [by these issues] and we’re going to be the ones to build solutions ourselves,” Telford said.

“We need to see the millions and billions of dollars invested into the fossil fuel industry invested into our health and our future, and that’s what this is about.”

Northern Land Council CEO, Marion Scrymgour, said the NLC can’t comment on any claims that may go to the Federal Court from third parties, “until such time as that happens”.

“We reject accusations that the NLC did not consult appropriately with Traditional Owners from the nine communities across the Beetaloo Basin in relation to what has been proposed in their Native Title area,” Scrymgour said.

“In the meantime we are open to listening and discussing any concerns that may be held by Beetaloo Basin Native Title holders.”

By Imogen Kars

*Editor’s note: This article was amended on 15/10/20 to include quotes from the Northern Land Council.