FMG poised to destroy sanctuary of ancestral burials


Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) Media Statement

Date of publication: 
26 October 2011

Michael Woodley, CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), says Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) is exploiting a State heritage system in crisis. As FMG prepare to launch into full-scale mining at Firetail/Solomon – Yindjibarndi call it Ganyjingarringunha – Mr Woodley believes their haste and defective heritage management practices risk a monumental disaster for this mountain sanctuary of Yindjibarndi sites dating back tens of thousands of years.
YAC has good reason to doubt that the Department of Indigenous Affairs (DIA) has sufficient will or resources to protect their sites. The Casey Review of DIA in 2007 concluded that DIA did not have enough on-ground staff to deal with the pressures of rampant mining exploration and development, and could not properly monitor the conduct of mining companies. This tallies exactly with what DIA staff have been telling YAC in the last few months.
Add to this that archaeologists who have done surveys in the area, report that heritage information provided by a breakaway splinter of Yindjibarndi, the Wirlumurra, who are sponsored by FMG, is “sketchy, lacking in specificity and far from comprehensive”. Veritas Archaeology and Eureka Heritage concluded, “It is doubtful that these reports on their own will provide sufficient detail for the ACMC to evaluate the ethnographic values of the Firetail area.”
YAC are appealing to the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DIA) to prevent massive ground disturbance until the Yindjibarndi people undertake independent and comprehensive heritage surveys to ensure reliable assessment and protection of their cultural, historic and religious sites – before mass-scale destruction of their country begins. The heritage at stake is enormous.
On 11 March 2011 Yindjibarndi people were notified of the discovery of a cache of skeletal remains in FMG’s Firetail Mining Priority area. YAC elders visited this site and confirmed that bones stowed high up in a walled niche, sealed with three stones, were human. They conducted a ceremony of purification and ‘conciliation’ with the spirits of their ancestors. Since then there have been two more discoveries of skeletal remains in FMG’s Solomon mining area (on 3 October and 24 August). (See map at:
Partial surveys in the Yindjibarndi part of Solomon Hub have recorded 215 sites already. Seventy eight of these are rock shelters, but the total number is likely to be much higher. One in five rock shelters feature walled niches containing ancient burials or possibly ritual artefacts associated with Law, and who knows what else?
This region of remote, Unallocated Crown Land is recognised by archaeologists as a ‘greenfield’ site, meaning no previous archaeological investigation has taken place.
Now, just as this precious world is being revealed, Fortescue Metals are putting enormous pressure on the Yindjibarndi people and the State Government to clear the way for its destruction.
In their hurry to gain heritage approvals, FMG have recruited the breakaway Wirlu-murra group (formed abruptly late in 2010) to carry out heritage clearances, and to provide all consents for destruction of Yindjibarndi sites in the path of full blown mining operations. Wirlu-murra surveys have proved to be a mockery. Wirlu-murra men, for example, said they didn’t want to investigate burial sites before they were destroyed, and acknowledged and accepted that the opportunity to gain information about them would be lost forever. In several instances, Wirlu-murra survey teams asserted that sites had no ethnographic significance, even though they had not seen them. “No comment recorded” appeared in the “Detail” column for 21 of 25 sites they were shown. Finally, Wirlu-murra members told FMG that all the archaeological sites they had seen, and had not seen, in the Firetail Priority Mining and Infrastructure area had no ethnographic significance.
Veritas Archaeology and Eureka Heritage concluded that “generally, [Wirlu-Murra] members possessed limited skills in the identification of archaeological resources”, and possessed a “lack of cultural knowledge of traditional life in the Firetail area […] despite there being a substantial body of archaeological evidence of occupation”. YAC corroborates these criticisms, and has consistently warned both FMG and DIA that heritage surveys conducted by FMG are unsafe.
In 2007 FMG provided shocking demonstration that it cannot be trusted to protect sites. After explicit direction by YAC that Ganyjingarringunha Jinbi, a freshwater spring located in the Solomon Hub, should be avoided, FMG bulldozed the site anyway.
In 2009 Yindjibarndi again experienced the failure of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (AHA) when, in response to damage by developers to Gurrwaying Yinda, a permanent water source adjacent to a flood-damaged rail bridge, then Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Kim Hames, said: “I have no power under the AHA to order that works which may be impacting upon an Aboriginal site be ceased”. Later he testified under oath in the Supreme Court of Western Australia that he would never ever allow an Aboriginal group to have the final say on the protection of a site, since that would amount to a ‘veto’.
In September 2011, the WA Auditor General reported grave flaws in DIA’s capacity to protect Aboriginal sites: “DIA has not effectively monitored or enforced compliance with conditions on mines under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972. As a result, heritage sites may have been lost or damaged without the State knowing or acting […] We found that DIA has only undertaken inspections of heritage sites when responding to complaints it received, but has taken no enforcement action when it has found non-compliance.”
Now FMG are seeking, via an appeal to the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT), to have four conditions attached to their June 2011 Section 18 consent, DELETED. In particular, FMG want to delete conditions
obliging them to:
1. avoid all sites that contain Aboriginal human remains;
2. consult with Yindjibarndi representatives to the satisfaction of the Registrar (before commencing any
mining activities) so as to “clarify the status of heritage places on the Land and identify all heritage values
associated with places on the Land”;
3. “provide the Registrar with information on the location and archaeological and ethnographic assessments of all rockshelters and caves located on the Land”.
The Wirlu-murra apparently couldn’t care less if these conditions are deleted as FMG’s wishes – they failed
to make any submission at all to the SAT. Mr Woodley said he was deeply saddened: “Our YAC members are
horrified that Wirlu-murra are clearing the way for the full destruction of Yindjibarndi burial sites. Is this part of their deal with FMG? That for the price of daily survey fees and the promise of a half million dollar signing payment, which all goes to the Wirlu-murra group, they do everything asked of them to clear sites for FMG – without any ceremony or proper investigation!”
Finally, the current Indigenous Affairs Minister, Peter Collier, has stated, “Andrew’s a personal friend of mine. I take great guidance and great advice from his wisdom.” YAC fear that the procedural fairness and independence of the Minister’s office and the heritage process is hopelessly compromised.
The National Native Title Tribunal made their decision allowing for the grant of three mining leases to FMG for the Solomon Hub, on the basis that this decision was made with the assurance that any sites of significance that are associated with the religious practices of the Yindjibarndi People would be “protected” by the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
“Our experience in the last year has shown that the Heritage Act of this state is an absolute joke,” said Mr Woodley. “The nonstop pressure of mining development has pushed heritage protection into a very dangerous crisis point. FMG are telling DIA there are absolutely no sites of ethnographic significance in the Firetail/Solomon area, this is a lie, and their appalling conduct is risking a disaster for our culture.”
YAC believes that conditions originally imposed by the Minister provide an essential safety net for the protection of Yindjibarndi country, and that they should be strictly upheld. YAC will begin comprehensive and independent surveys in November and have requested until 29 February 2012 to carry out this work.
Reference Paper providing full citations for this statement DOWNLOAD
Primary documents & photos available on request from media [at] juluwarlu [dot] com [dot] au
Slideshow LINK
Michael Woodley – CEO YAC – 0419 097 130 mwoodley [at] juluwarlu [dot] com [dot] au
Phil Davies – Anthropologist YAC – 0429 110 451 pdavies [at] juluwarlu [dot] com [dot] au
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