MAC: Mines and Communities

A proposed bauxite mine is scrapped in Australia

Published by MAC on 2010-10-25
Source: AAP, Solidarity Magazine

But arguments rage over Aboriginal Rights

The vast "outback" of Australia's northern Queensland is host to some of the world's most valuable bauxite deposits - Rio Tinto's Weipa operations being the most extensive of their kind anywhere.

The region is also home to many Aboriginal communities ("traditional land owners") whose battles to halt bauxite mining, or gain benefits from its exploitation, stretch back several decades and down at least three generations.

The latest attempt to open such a mine has faltered - with the proponent company, Cape Alumina, cancelling a project that would have had to be severely curtailed under recently-enacted wilderness protection legislation.

Inevitably, Australia's Opposition Liberal (ie conservative) Party isn't happy about this.

Nor is the best-known Aboriginal leader in the region, Noel Pearson of the pro-business Cape York Institute. He has promised to "bring jobs to Aboriginal people" and backed Cape Alumina's supposed pledge to do so.

But Mr Pearson doesn't enjoy unanimous support from other traditional land owner groups - far from it. 

Terry O'Shane of the Northern Queensland (Aboriginal) Land Council criticises Pearson as a person "subservient to the interests of miners and governments."

Marandoo Yanner, leader of the Carpentaria Land Council, hasn't opposed mining or Aboriginal employment in the territory as such.

Nonetheless he's also urging great caution before allowing any mining to proceed.

Is this particular saga an example of "wilderness preservation" being pitted against "Indigenous rights", as Cape Alumina has tried to present it?

No it isn't. Whatever divergent views exist on the acceptability of specific mining proposals, the existing Native Title Act is intrinsically flawed.

The legislation currently does not provide even a basic right to Aboriginal communities to decide for themselves whether, when, or how a project should proceed.

[Comment by Nostromo Research, 22 October 2010]

Cape York bauxite mine scrapped over wild rivers law


18 October 2010

A mining company has cancelled a project on Cape York, blaming Queensland's wild rivers legislation.

Cape Alumina Limited said in a statement today it has advised the Australian Securities Exchange its Pisolite Hills project had been rendered unviable by the Wild Rivers declaration.

The company released a project and resource update which it said showed that the bauxite proposed to be mined at Pisolite Hills had been reduced by 45 per cent as a result of the imposition of "arbitrary, 500-metre wide buffers - so-called High Preservation Areas (HPAs) - in the vicinity of the project".
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"As a result of the review, the company's board has concluded that this loss of resources means that the project is no longer economically viable and that it cannot proceed unless the HPAs are reduced in size," the company said.

Cape Alumina initiated its resource review following the declaration of the Wenlock River Basin as a "wild river" area by the state government on June 4 this year.

The company said Resources Minister Stephen Robertson had rejected the advice of independent environment experts and his own department, which recommended 300-metre wide HPAs.

Dr Paul Messenger, Cape Alumina's managing director, said Queensland would now be denied $1.2 billion in new economic activity, and hundreds of new jobs, many of them earmarked for residents of remote indigenous communities on western Cape York.

Minister's reaction

Mr Robertson today told reporters he owed no apologies.

"We have some of the most stringent environmental laws in the world, and justifiably so, because we do not want to see our environment damaged at the expense of industrial development or mining development," he said.

Mr Robertson said he would not decrease the 500-metre buffer zone around the wild rivers that the company has argued should be reduced to 300 metres.

He said Cape Alumina had other exploration tenures in the area and had also indicated it would go ahead with its environmental impact statement for the Pisolite Hills project.

"Obviously they are hoping that there may be a change of government in the future that may result in less stringent environmental standards coming into play in Cape York," he said.

"If that's what their belief is it will be fought out at the next election, quite dramatically so."

Federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott today announced he would visit Gulf and Cape York communities to review his plan to introduce a private member's bill to overturn the controversial laws.

Mr Robertson said he was glad Mr Abbott had realised he didn't have resounding support for introducing his bill.

Mr Robertson said he hoped Mr Abbott would call off his plan, labelling it a stunt.

Great win: Wilderness Society

Wilderness Society of Queensland spokesman Glenn Walker said it was a great win for the environment.

"Cape Alumina's plan for a bauxite mine in the Cape is akin to drilling for oil in the Great Barrier Reef," Mr Walker said.

"The news that the mine is dead is fantastic news. This is one of the greatest conservation achievements in Queensland."

He said the mine proposed to bulldoze large areas of eucalyptus forests - the habit of threatened species such as the palm cockatoo, found in Australia only on Cape York Peninsula.

It was also going to affect pristine estuarine areas, home to the critically endangered fresh water sawfish and speartooth shark, he said.

"This is an embarrassing backdown for Tony Abbott, who is really only seeking to pander to mining and other developer interests," the society's campaign manager Dr Tim Seelig said, referring to the Opposition Leader's decision.

"He and his party should support the upcoming federal parliamentary inquiry into wild rivers and the balance between economic development and environmental management."

He said Labor, Greens and most of the independent MPs have agreed to conduct an inquiry into sustainable indigenous economic development, conservation practices and environmental laws such as wild rivers.

The purpose of Queensland's Wild Rivers Act, passed in 2005, is to preserve the natural values of wild rivers.

Abbott praised for rethink on wild rivers

By Steve Gray


18 October 2010

Aboriginal leaders in far north Queensland have praised federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's decision to delay a private member's bill that would overturn the northern state's wild rivers legislation.

Mr Abbott on Sunday said he planned to visit indigenous communities on Cape York and the Gulf of Carpentaria before putting forward his bill.

"Before I formally introduce that bill into the parliament, I do want to have some further conversations with people in the Gulf as well as people in Cape York," Mr Abbott said.

Gulf indigenous community leader Murrandoo Yanner said Mr Abbott appeared to have accepted an invitation from indigenous leaders to look again at the wild rivers laws.

Mr Abbott could then listen to other Aboriginal leaders apart from Noel Pearson, a vocal critic of the wild rivers laws, he said.

Mr Yanner said Mr Pearson was "leading them up a gully path" and had exerted an "undue influence" on the debate.

"(Mr Abbott) deserves some credit for having the political courage and taking the initiative in being one of the first leaders of a national stature to finally say: 'Enough's enough, I'm not only going to listen to Mr Pearson, but to others'," he said.

Cape Alumina on Monday announced it would abandon a $1.2 billion bauxite mining proposal on western Cape York, saying the Queensland government's 500-metre buffer zone on wild rivers made the project unviable.

Mr Yanner said the Queensland government should allow another miner to take over the bauxite deposit at Pisolite Hills after Cape Alumina said it was pulling out.

The company has said it will still complete the environmental impact statement in the hope of a change of government or the laws.

"They should tell the company not to come back and put the resource out to tender and see what other companies are willing to develop it and do a deal on indigenous employment," Mr Yanner said.

Other miners could develop the bauxite deposit in a sustainable way, provide jobs for Aboriginal workers and respect the 500m buffer zones, he said.

"The buffers are there for a reason," Mr Yanner said.

"These rivers flood and break their banks at the best of times in the wet."

The Queensland opposition and some indigenous leaders, such as Mr Pearson, argue the laws are too strict and deny locals the opportunity to create new ecotourism and other business in areas where jobs are scarce.

Chairman of the North Queensland Land Council, Terry O'Shane, told AAP that Aboriginal representatives from the Cape York and Gulf region recently travelled to Canberra to tell politicians that the position adopted by Mr Pearson was not universal.

"We have people whose interest is governed by their desire to protect their Native Title rights and interests, and not act subservient to the interests of miners and governments," Mr O'Shane said.

He said that rather than pursuing a private member's bill, Mr Abbott would be better served by supporting amendments to the Native Title Legislation to allow for the full-blown right to negotiate.

"This will then see us engaged in the wealth generation of this country in the resource industry, the tourism industry and the carbon trading process rather than allow governments to lock us out of wealth generation by locking away these rights in negative legislations," Mr O'Shane said.

Federal opposition spokesman for Northern Australia Senator Ian Macdonald said the Queensland government had stripped away the rights of traditional owners, costing the indigenous community of Mapoon a shot at economic independence.

"The assessment that a 500-metre exclusion zone is needed doesn't appear to have been based on science or experience, both of which suggest a much more reasonable 300-metre exclusion zone would have protected the river system and allowed for the bauxite project," Senator Macdonald said.

Neither Mr Pearson nor his Cape York Institute returned AAP's calls seeking comment.

Abbott and Wild Rivers: It's all about big business not Aboriginal rights

Solidarity Magazine

October, 2010

Tony Abbott's efforts to pose as a defender of land rights through his attack on the Wild Rivers legislation is motivated by mining interests, writes Paddy Gibson

As Solidarity goes to print, the Gillard Labor government has referred Liberal leader Tony Abbott's proposed private member's bill to "overturn" the Queensland government's "Wild Rivers" laws to a House of Representatives economics committee.

The committee is expected to report in March 2011, but the controversy will continue as, incredibly, Abbott tries to portray himself as defender of Aboriginal rights.

Abbott's bill is the culmination of a long campaign waged by The Australian newspaper, big business, Indigenous figurehead Noel Pearson and his network of pro-business Aboriginal organisations on Cape York.

This conservative alliance is using the battle over Wild Rivers laws to further entrench an ideology of pro-market assimilation in Aboriginal affairs.

The hysteria over Wild Rivers only makes sense when seen as part of the current neo-liberal assault on Aboriginal rights alongside the NT Intervention, the destruction of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP) and the Generation One employment scheme championed by mining magnate Andrew Forrest.

In each case, "alliances" with major corporations and the development of private enterprise are put forward as the answer to Indigenous poverty. Communities unable to attract significant private capital are written off as "unviable". The idea that public money should be used to provide housing and services is derided as encouraging "passive welfare".

These policies are also part of the concerted efforts to blame Aboriginal people themselves for ongoing poverty.

The conservative Anglican church, a high profile supporter of Tony Abbott's bill, argues in a recent report that Wild Rivers would stifle the Aboriginal cultural transformation championed by Pearson as, "notions of general social progress, or indeed any kind of change, (are) deeply alien to those of a classical Aboriginal persuasion."

Wild Rivers

The Queensland Wild Rivers legislation was introduced in 2005, providing a comprehensive, if flawed, series of regulations on development in and around pristine river systems.

Regulations kick in once a river system is declared "wild". Development is strictly regulated within an area up to one kilometre from the bank of the major river and its tributaries-a "High Preservation Area" (HPA). High impact projects, namely dams, commercial irrigation and strip mining are prohibited in the HPA. Lower impact developments like housing, fishing and grazing are allowed.

In the much larger "Preservation Area" encompassing the remainder of the basin, there are very few restrictions on development, including mining, as long as requirements are met to minimise impact on the river system. In a "Designated Urban Area" surrounding a town or village, further exemptions apply.

The main problem with Wild Rivers are the exemptions that the Bligh government have granted to mining companies from the strict rules that are supposed to apply within an HPA. Existing mines such as Rio Tinto's massive bauxite operations around Weipa will continue despite their destructive impact, and a bauxite mine proposed by Chinese company Chinalco has been granted an explicit exemption.

Nine Wild Rivers have been declared under the Act, including four in the Gulf of Carpentaria, aided by the advocacy of the Carpentaria Aboriginal Land Council.

It is the most recent declarations over the Archer, Stewart and Lockhart Rivers, along with a pending decision on the Wenlock River, all in Cape York, that have brought the issue to a head.

Abbott, Pearson and self-determination

Country Liberal Senator Nigel Scullion first introduced the Wild Rivers (Environmental Management) bill into the federal Senate in early February. Tony Abbott is now re-introducing the same bill.

Addressing Parliament in February, Tony Abbott argued that, "the Queensland Wild Rivers Act amounts to a smash-and-grab raid on the land rights of the Aboriginal people of Cape York". Abbott continued, "[Wild Rivers] adds a heavy burden of additional bureaucracy to any Aboriginal people seeking to turn their land from a spiritual into an economic asset".

Last February, the Liberals' attack on Wild Rivers went largely un-noticed. Not this time. The level of media coverage and controversy shows the Liberal Party is now better able to set the terms of political debate and how false is the idea is that the new parliament offers better terrain for the left.

The bill itself makes one simple change to the Wild Rivers Act. The Act would not be able to regulate any area of land over which Aboriginal people had Native Title, "unless the Aboriginal traditional owners of the land agree".

The suggestion that the Liberal Party genuinely care about Aboriginal land rights is farcical. They opposed Native Title and then legislated "bucketloads of extinguishment" under Howard. They initiated and continue to support the NT Intervention which has compulsorily acquired Aboriginal township land across the NT-seeing millions of dollars worth of land, assets and property transferred from Aboriginal to state ownership. Currently in WA, Liberal Premier Colin Barnett has broken off negotiations with Native Title claimants and is pursuing the compulsory acquisition of land in the Kimberley for a gas plant .

Rather than offer traditional owners in Queensland more real control over their land, Abbott's bill would entrench the idea that prospects for future development rest entirely on mining and agribusiness companies taking that land over.

Native Title is the lowest form of land tenure in Australia. Native Title holders have no right to block commercial development. They cannot veto mining operations. The Native Title Act only stipulates that potential commercial developers must, "negotiate in good faith" with Native Title holders, "with a view to forming an agreement". There is no requirement to actually enter into an agreement or even to pay mining royalties.

Native Title lawyer Sarah Burnside recently reported a case concerning Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) and a mining lease on Pilbara Native Title land where, "The Court held that FMG had discharged its duty to negotiate in good faith despite the fact that there had been no substantive negotiation on the mining lease in question with either Native Title group".

Of course, to gain quicker access to Native Title land, many mining companies do enter into agreements.

Cape Alumina, a fierce public critic of Wild Rivers, is using its "employment covenant" with Mapoon Native Title holders to coax local Aboriginal people into opposing Wild Rivers.

Cape Alumina are threatening to pull out of a $1.2 billion bauxite mining operation in the Wenlock river basin if the Wild Rivers declaration goes ahead.

Paul Messenger, the Managing Director of Cape Alumina, said in June:

"Some 47 years after the Queensland government burned the houses [of people at Mapoon] to the ground and forced those people off the land at gunpoint, [with Wild Rivers] the government has today again sold those people down the river".

He didn't mention that Mapoon was originally burnt down to clear the way for bauxite miners.

Standing up to market assimilation

The Greens have rightly opposed Tony Abbott's bill. They say if the Liberals really believed Aboriginal people should have a veto over what happens on their land, they would amend the Native Title Act to grant this veto to all Native Title holders across Australia, over all activities.

They also argue that Tony Abbott's bill does not specify how the "traditional owners" will be determined under the Act, or what is meant by "agreement".

As the recent struggles around the nuclear waste dump at Muckaty north of Tennant Creek show, it is very easy for government to hold handfuls of impoverished Aboriginal people to ransom, and coerce them to accept toxic developments by promising employment and basic services.

Even where the vast majority of local Aboriginal people oppose such development, as is the case at Muckaty, the government uses claims that "traditional owners have agreed" to give legitimacy to racist policy.

To seriously counter Abbott's drive for more market assimilation requires going further than opposing his bill. Pearson's entire project must be confronted. Pearson sneers at demands for government funding as welfare dependency. But no Indigenous project in the country receives as much government funding as the punitive Cape York Family Responsibilities Commission (FRC) he helped design.

Forty eight million dollars is being spent over four years on "welfare reform" in Cape York for a cluster of four communities with a combined population of about 3000 people. That's about $20,000 per school age child per year to pay for bureaucrats to impose welfare quarantining or tie welfare payments to school attendance.

This sort of money is badly needed for community development. But as with the NT Intervention, the government is more concerned to fund programs which control Aboriginal people than to provide the jobs, housing and education facilities needed by the communities.

Pearson tries to portray himself as a defender of small scale Aboriginal enterprises. Shamefully, one leaflet distributed throughout late 2009 even claimed that the legislation would lead to bans on traditional fishing and hunting.

Pearson supported the closure of Community Development Employment Projects (CDEP), which cut around 1000 jobs at the Yarrabah Aboriginal community, south of Cairns. He stood by when a vegetable farm at Yarrabah was hit by the closure of CDEP.

Pearson's real concerns are for the interests of big business. Pearson has formal alliances with the Queensland Minerals Council and the AgForce lobby group to fight Wild Rivers. Bauxite and sand mining companies on the Cape are the only planned projects claiming Wild Rivers will make them unviable.

In fact none of the 100 Wild Rivers development applications submitted to the Queensland government have been knocked back.

While opposing Tony Abbott's bill, the left should feel no need to defend the Bligh government on environmental or Aboriginal rights issues. Bligh is planning new coal fired power stations. She is driving the FRC on Cape York and forcing long-term leases onto Aboriginal communities.

While Queensland Labor has made sure Wild Rivers legislation doesn't override Native Title rights, it certainly isn't funding services needed to support flourishing livelihoods on Aboriginal land.

But Tony Abbott's bill must be defeated. It is not self-determination to rely on crumbs from a $1.2 billion bauxite mine that could have proceeded with or without Aboriginal approval.

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