The battle over an ancient valley — Ngajanha Marnta or Spear Hill — in Western Australia’s Pilbara has re-ignited.
Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAG), the native title body for the Eastern Guruma people of the area, said this week they were concerned about an increase in construction activity near the valley by billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group.
The corporation said WA’s Supreme Court was scheduled to consider a judicial review of the case next month (October) and that the federal Minister for the Environment Melissa Price was still to rule on a WGAC application for the area to be protected.
“FMG appears to write their own rules when it comes to approvals for their projects. They are thumbing their nose at established, legislated State and Commonwealth Government processes in their rush to get this project off the ground,” WGAC director Tony Bevan said.
But FMG chief executive officer Elizabeth Gaines said Tuesday clearing and civil earth works for the construction of the Fredericks mining project and mine access road were outside the boundary of the Spear Hill cultural site and conducted in accordance with government approvals.
The WGAC is fighting FMG over the valley, which it says has been used by Aboriginal people for more than 23,000 years and is at risk of being destroyed by a rail line planned by the mining giant.
They say the valley, which lies at the base of Spear Hill or Ngajanha Marnta, was 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 has the same traditional name as the hill.
The WGAC said big areas of land had been cleared by FMG despite uncertainty surrounding the validity of the Aboriginal heritage approvals obtained from the WA government, including a haul road through the Spear Hill area.
“When FMG put the heavy machines into the area last month we were led to believe that a decision from the Commonwealth minister was imminent,” WGAC director Tony Bevan said.
“There was some negotiation going on at the time but that all finished soon after FMG sent in the dozers.”
“The disappointing thing is that FMG has not waited for the Minister’s decision but instead made a calculated decision to start the destruction of this sacred area. We have seen this again and again with FMG — they don’t let anything or anyone stand in the way of their aggressive project timelines.”
“I understand this project is critical to their long-term plans. But acting in advance of the Minister’s decision, and before the Supreme Court of WA confirms the validity of FMG’s Aboriginal heritage approvals, is causing significant distress and anger in the Eastern Guruma community.”
“Their actions show a lack of respect for Traditional Owners and for legislated government processes that are in place to ensure procedural fairness to all interested parties and protection for unique heritage or environments.”
FMG chief executive officer Elizabeth Gaines said the clearing and earthworks were in an area that had been the subject of many Aboriginal cultural heritage surveys by WGAC-nominated traditional custodians who had expert cultural knowledge about the survey areas and by expert anthropologists and archaeologists engaged by WGAC.
She said the existence of the judicial review challenging section 18 consent was not relevant as Fortescue had designed this stage of construction to avoid any disturbance to identified Aboriginal heritage sites.
Ms Gaines said WGAC was given written notice of the work 30 days before it began.
Early this year, WGAC applied to the Commonwealth Government for an emergency declaration to protect the area.
The corporation said a report, requested by former federal Minister for the Environment Josh Frydenberg, detailing the cultural and heritage significance of the area, has been prepared, but that new minister Melissa Price had yet to rule on the matter.
WGAC has also asked the Supreme Court in WA for a review of the WA government.
A rail line planned for the area is part of FMG’s $1.5 billion Eliwanna mine plans.
By Wendy Caccetta