MAC: Mines and Communities

Australian miner "making us powerless in our own country" - Aboriginal spokesperson

Published by MAC on 2009-10-19

A widespread belief that Australia's Native Title Act gives Aboriginal communities a right to veto any mining project on their territory, is erroneous.

As we reported last month, a small Western Australian Indigenous community is currently fighting for that right against BHP Billiton, the world's most powerful mining corporation. See:

At stake are proposed expansions of the world's second largest iron ore field, in the Pilbara region.

Now, the country's third largest iron ore miner, Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), has trumped another Aboriginal community's existing entitlement to negotiate compensation for the loss of its land.

Fortescue's largest single shareholder is home-grown billionaire mining magnate, Andrew Forrest. Its second biggest is Valin of China.

FMG court win to hit native title claims: Indigenous group

by Andrea Hayward, AAP

15 October 2009

A High Court decision to quash an appeal by indigenous people against a company run by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest will limit the rights of indigenous people to negotiate with mining companies, an Aboriginal corporation says.

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people from the Pilbara region, in Western Australia's north, had sought special leave to appeal a decision by the full court of the Federal Court made earlier this year in Fortescue's favour.

But the application was dismissed on Wednesday by the High Court of Australia.

In July 2008, the National Native Title Tribunal found FMG Pilbara Pty Ltd had failed to negotiate in good faith with traditional owners about a mining tenement proposal over 4320 hectares of land in the west Pilbara.

It found FMG had prematurely sought a determination about a proposed mining lease while the negotiations about the tenement were in their infancy.

In April this year FMG, whose chief executive Mr Forrest is one of Australia's richest men, successfully appealed the decision in the full court of the Federal Court.

Wednesday's High Court decision has wide-reaching ramifications for native title claimants, according to the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, representing the traditional owners.

It said the decision to quash leave to appeal meant indigenous people would be limited in their right to negotiate.

''The right-to-negotiate section of the (native title) act is instrumental in enabling traditional owners to secure compensation for loss of their country,'' Yamatji Marlpa chief executive Simon Hawkins said.

''The High Court's dismissal of this case now means that mining companies are no longer required to have substantial negotiations with indigenous people regarding the use of their land.

''This will further economically disenfranchise indigenous people and render them powerless against big business.''

Mr Hawkins said while FMG touted its indigenous employment covenant and the Federal Government worked towards ''closing the gap'' in living standards between Aboriginal and other Australians, indigenous people were suffering.

''Indigenous people in the Pilbara are still living in Third World conditions,'' Mr Hawkins said.

''Considering $16 billion is generated annually in the Pilbara, this decision is deplorable.''

While mining companies were making billions of dollars Aborigines were living below the poverty line, traditional owner Nyapuru Jefferies said.

''FMG never began any substantial negotiations towards an agreement with our people, they just went through the motions,'' Mr Jefferies said.

''We'd only just finished on agreeing on a protocol on how the negotiations would take place.

''Agreeing to the protocol for the negotiations isn't actually beginning the real nuts and bolts of a negotiation.

''It makes our people sad that a company that promotes itself as helping indigenous people was putting a case to the courts to make us powerless in our own country.''

Yamatji Marlpa Pilbara chairwoman Doris Eaton said she was worried about the impact of the court's decision.

''As a Njamal person who's been part of many good faith negotiations with mining companies, I'm worried that this will stop all the positive things we have achieved for our younger generation.

''I am really worried for our future and what this means for all native title groups across Australia.''

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