MAC: Mines and Communities

Australia: Why we must still "Weep for Weipa"

Published by MAC on 2015-12-13
Source: ABC News

A London Calling special report

The story, published below, reminds us that Australian Aboriginal communities in Cape York, northern Queensland, still don't enjoy a "level playing field" in their relationship with Rio Tinto.

For the past four years, the traditional Wik land owners have fought with the company to stop it burning - rather than salvaging - 30,000 hectares of tropical timber on their territory at Amrun, before the company embarks on a massive expansion of bauxite mining.

Onlookers may view this as a side-issue to the still-unresolved nation-wide battle for full Australian Aboriginal land rights. But it's actually an extension to that struggle.

Much more than this - it's also a deeply depressing reminder of what some three generations of Wik have been forced to yield to Rio Tinto: not just their territory, but also virtually all the natural resources that formerly provided for sustainable livelihoods.

Rio Tinto, in a statement last week, seeking to justify the latest proposed destruction, claimed:

"The Amrun project builds on Rio Tinto's 50-year history on Cape York and the strong partnerships we have developed with the region's traditional owners with one in four of employeees at our existing operations being Indigenous people".

The Rio Tinto lie

In fact, this "50-year history" extends back nearly sixty years. In 1957, Queensland's far-right state government pushed through a special act of parliament, allowing Comalco (a subsidiary of Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia) to take over no fewer than 2,270 square miles of Aboriginal reserve land. Mining commenced in 1960.

More than a decade and a half later, David Broadbent, a reporter for the Melbourne Age painted a graphic and harrowing picture of what this corporate invasion had entailed:

"If men ever established a base on the barren surface of Mars, it will look like Weipa...[The result] is acres of dead craters unrelieved by a single growing thing...traditions have disappeared and alcohol has wreaked havoc...The Weipa operations have caused alarm in every Aboriginal community throughout the north of Australia." [The Age, 5 October 1976].

Fast forward some forty years, and Rio Tinto-Comalco has admittedly effected a considerable amount of land reclamation, including planting of native species of plants and trees, while providing some jobs. (At the same time, it's boast that 25% of its workers are Aboriginal cuts little ice - back in 1977 it was already standing at 10%, paltry though that proportion was) [Australian Financial Review, 25 March 1977].

But the company is now refusing to put its own profits before an indigenous commercial enterprise, backed by descendants of the very people whose sustainable liveilhoods were so ignominiously sacrificed back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Plunder revisited

We've just flicked through the history of Rio Tinto, contained in "Plunder!: Presented by a global newtork of people opposed to the activities of the RTZ Corporation [Partizans/CAFCA, London and Christchurch, 1991].

This reminded us that, in 1977, the same Australian Financial Review (mentioned just now) predicted that, thanks to its timber operations on Aboriginal land in Cape York, Comalco by the year 2000 would be "a major timber group". Plunder commented:

"This was too close to suggesting that, having ripped-off and ripped-out the heart of Aboriginal traditional country, CRA was now going to misappropriate whatever meagre fruits the barren land could support".

Four years later, in 1981, Joyce Hall, a Wik elder and spokesperson, travelled to Europe to testify against Comalco/Rio Tinto at an international tribunal held in Amsterdam. She was also interviewed in London for a film made by Granada TV, appropriately entitled "Strangers in their own land".

The film included Joyce Hall's statement that:

"Since the mining come, a real sacred place was destroyed...that is where the bodies, the deads, were put on the trees.

"In our traditional ways, the bodies are not buried. They are put up in the trees until the grease is down..left to dry before we could go back. This was destroyed when they burnt and knocked the trees down. They did not know it was there. Of course the whiteman should know better. Ask first".

Alas, so far as we know, the film was shown only once in Australia. Conzinc Rio Tinto took out a defamation suit against ABC, to a large extent because of Joyce's testimony - and the company won.

Despite that half century of good relationship Rio Tinto now claims to have enjoyed with the Wik, has it really learned any better?

Cape York traditional owners urge Rio Tinto to prevent 'heartbreaking waste' of timber

By National Rural and Regional reporter Dominique Schwartz

ABC News

3 December 2015

Traditional owners on Cape York are urging mining giant Rio Tinto to finalise an agreement which would ensure that timber worth hundreds of millions of dollars is salvaged and not burnt.

Rio Tinto last week gave the official green light to its $2.5 billion Amrun bauxite mine, south of Weipa in far north Queensland and preparatory work is already underway at the site.

The project, on the traditional lands of the Wik and Wik Way people, will involve clearing about 30,000 hectares of tropical savannah woodland over the 40-year life of the mine.

The timber resource is worth an estimated $600 million, according to Mark Annandale, a senior research fellow at the University of the Sunshine Coast and a forestry consultant for the Wik people.

Four years ago, the Queensland Government granted Wik Timber Holdings Ltd a permit to salvage and sell timber on Rio Tinto's lease which would otherwise be clear-felled and burnt ahead of mining.

But Wik Timber said it still did not have an access agreement with Rio Tinto Alcan, despite more than two years of negotiations.

"Our concern is that it's dragging on for too long," said Gina Castelain, who oversees a suite of Wik-owned businesses which aim to generate jobs, income and independence for the Wik people.

"We expect [Rio Tinto] to start construction in May. Already we've cleared lots of areas for their drilling program south of Weipa," she said.

For the best part of a decade, the Wik earth-moving enterprise has been doing contract clearing and burning of native woodland for Rio Tinto's current mining operations around Weipa.

"It's heartbreaking and a real waste," Ms Castelain said. "And we can't continue to keep wasting this valuable timber resource."

"Probably 98 per cent of the population here is on welfare or part of the welfare dependency cycle. We want to create real jobs, people in meaningful jobs and on their traditional country."

Rio Tinto supplied a statement to the ABC saying:

"[The company] supports the principle of timber harvesting ahead of mining and is working through negotiations with Wik Timber as quickly as possible to underpin what may be a sustainable long-term opportunity.

"Safety is our number one priority and we are focussed on ensuring any timber harvesting activities on the mining lease meet appropriate health and safety standards.

"We are working to confirm timber harvesting can be conducted in a compatible way with our mining activities, and consistent with our obligations to traditional owners.

"The Amrun project builds on Rio Tinto's 50-year history on Cape York and the strong partnerships we have developed with the region's traditional owners, with one in four employees at our existing operations being Indigenous people.

"We are committed to providing access to opportunities for local and indigenous suppliers and community members to benefit from the project."

Rio Tinto said the main construction work would not start until 2017-18 and that land clearing would take place progressively over the 40-year life of the mine.

But Mr Annandale said to create a viable business, Wik Timber needed to be assured of access and supply so that it could start locking in buyers.

His inner-Brisbane cottage is a show home for the beauty and high structural value of the timber that the Wik want to salvage: Darwin stringybark and Cooktown ironwood.

"These species are in the highest value categories," he said. "And can be used for any construction purpose in housing."

"One of the beauties for the market is that some like light gold colours, the Chinese do, and the Japanese like red timbers, and Cape York timber provides that spectrum."

He said there was already keen interest in Wik Timber from potential buyers in south-east Asia.

"We want to sign off on the Memorandum of Understanding [with Rio Tinto] so that Wik Timber can get down and do business in 2016. Without signoff it reduces the opportunities for Wik and they won't be able to realise opportunities."

Ms Castelain said it was a win-win situation.

"Rio will not be clearing and burning and we can salvage the timber," she said.

"It shouldn't be this hard to get agreements in place with mining companies."

The Queensland Agriculture Department said it had discussed the access MoU with Wik Timber and Rio Tinto together and separately, but said that "ultimately it was a commercial arrangement to be settled by both parties".

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