MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Blacks call BHP cash bid an insult

Published by MAC on 2004-11-05

Blacks call BHP cash bid an insult

Amanda Hodge, The Australian News

November 05, 2004

BHP Billiton insulted Aboriginal traditional owners by offering to "cash out" their right to act as cultural heritage guides on mining and drilling surveys through Cape York, an indigenous land council said yesterday.

BHP Billiton has been negotiating for almost four months with the Cape York Land Council on behalf of four traditional owner groups over conditions governing the granting of nine exploration leases in Queensland's remote far north.

The company hopes to make its first significant foray into the Cape, around the old gold mining Palmer River and Coleman River regions, in search of nickel and copper.

A spokeswoman for BHP Billiton said yesterday there had been a "misunderstanding" over the offer, and that the company was not trying to avoid its obligations.

"We reject that we seek to make cash payments in lieu of undertaking appropriate measures to protect the cultural heritage significance of the area," said the company's media relations manager, Tania Price.

"We value our relationship very much with traditional owners and have entered into a number of successful agreements through similar processes to what we're going through now."

But the land council hit back at the mining giant yesterday, insisting it made a clear offer of an upfront payment to the Thaypan, Olkola, Ayapathu and Wik and Wik Way traditional owners not to accompany BHP Billiton employees undertaking cultural heritage surveys.

CYLC executive director Richie Ah Mat said such an arrangement would be pointless, because miners could not know whether they were breaching traditional protocols unless they were accompanied by elders who knew the land and its important sites.

"We have some of the best agreements in the country with Comalco, Alcan and Mitsubishi, we have drilling going on all over Cape York and we haven't faced this problem before," Mr Ah Mat said yesterday.

"BHP can't treat the black fella like the early explorers treated them with beads and trinkets."

Mr Ah Mat accused the company of using delaying tactics to exploit a loophole in the Queensland law.

Queensland indigenous groups have a four-month window to negotiate conditions for the exploration of land, taking into consideration issues such as cultural heritage, sacred sites and social benefits for disadvantaged communities.

But if agreement is not reached in that time, the state Government's new native title protection conditions may cut in, and the land council says these fall well below accepted industry standards.

Kuku Thaypan elder George Musgrave, who lives in the southern Cape town of Laura, said he did not oppose BHP Billiton exploring his mother's Quinkan country, home to 30,000-year-old rock art, but he did not want miners going out into the area unaccompanied.

"They got no idea where to go, where the stories are. We can show them all that," Mr Musgrave said.

BHP Billiton denied it was going slow in the negotiations and said it was "committed to negotiating an agreement in good faith".

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