MAC: Mines and Communities

Thieves strip station before its handover

Published by MAC on 2002-06-22

Thieves strip station before its handover

Robert Reid

Source: Courier Mail (Sydney) June 22 2002

A CAPE York cattle station owned by mining giant Comalco, and due to be handed over to indigenous groups, has been systematically robbed of 1800 head of cattle by a duffing gang which has operated unchecked for two years.

A former manager of Sudley Station, 70km east of Weipa, told The Courier-Mail the 1300sq km spread has been deliberately neglected and plundered of livestock and farm equipment. Thieves took the attitude, "the blackfellas are taking over so we may as well get in and take what we can".

Tony Cook, who left this week after a year as manager, said he uncovered the racket when he took over from a previous manager, "who got out because he knew what was going on".

He said 36 horses had also disappeared from the property.

Mr Cook said he kept diaries and documented evidence of the duffing operation, which has been scrutinised by the stock squad.

It is estimated the stolen beasts could be worth $400 to $500 each on the black market.

Mr Cook said he was employed by pastoral management company Taylor Byrne who managed the station for Comalco. Initially, he was too afraid to speak out because of fears he would be blamed for the stock theft.

Taylor Byrne management declined to comment, but it is believed the company is no longer involved in running the Sudley property.

A helicopter mustering pilot, who asked not to be named, said he had "flown over every inch of that land" and Mr Cook's claims were true.

"I've mustered cattle there since the end of 1999, but in December last year there were only a few stragglers left on Sudley," he said.

Mr Cook said Comalco had ignored his pleas for help to restore Sudley and he had been forced to endure unsafe living and working conditions.

He said he had been paying for the day-to-day running of the station - including unpaid bills - out of his own pocket and was owed $4500 by Comalco.

"They didn't spend a brass razoo on the place and it was left to me to keep it afloat."

General manager of Comalco Weipa, Joe Carrabba, admitted that large numbers of Sudley cattle had gone missing and the station was in poor shape.

A new manager had been appointed and the company was "sinking a fair bit of money back into it", he said.

Mr Carrabba, an American executive who took over Comalco in March, said a company audit had revealed a "great deal of cattle had gone" but his job was to make changes and get the station back into running order.

Asked if bad management practices on the part of Comalco had led to problems on the station, Mr Carrabba replied: "It's a conclusion one can draw. Australians would call it a very ordinary situation."

Mr Carrabba said Comalco was negotiating with indigenous elders to hand Sudley over within two to three years "when it's in correct operating order".

"Our exit strategy is to hand it over completely once it's back on its feet," he said.

But Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation executive director Gerhardt Pearson says the handover timeframe is too long and traditional owners are unhappy with the loss of so many cattle and the degraded nature of the property.

Mr Pearson said the Cape York Land Council was representing several groups of northern Wik people in talks with Comalco. Balkanu was also ready to provide land management assistance once the land was handed back.

He urged Comalco not to transfer a badly run-down property to the traditional owners.

"It is of serious concern to traditional owners, and to me, that a multimillion-dollar company - in this case Rio Tinto - has allowed Sudley to degrade to the level it is now in," he said.

Stock squad aerial co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Terry Hanley said investigations into stock losses around Weipa were continuing.

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