The process of developing a long-awaited agreement between traditional owners and the operators of the McArthur River Mine (MRM) has begun, but some Aboriginal clan members in the Northern Territory’s Gulf region have expressed frustration they are not part of the negotiating team.
- Glencore needs support from traditional owners to expand the McArthur River Mine
- A team of Aboriginal custodians has been selected to negotiate an agreement with the company
- However, some Garawa clan members, who were not selected as part of the team, have criticised the process
Glencore — which owns the zinc, lead and silver mine 700 kilometres south-east of Darwin — wants to expand its operations.
But despite gaining conditional approval from the Northern Territory government late last year, the expansion cannot proceed as planned unless the company also secures authorisation to conduct works that could negatively impact sacred sites.
The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority (AAPA) previously refused to grant such authorisation because it said Glencore — which had negotiated an agreement with just six individuals — should have consulted with up to 180 custodians in the region.
Glencore subsequently appealed AAPA’s decision to Heritage Minister Chansey Paech, who is expected to hand down his determination within weeks.
However, while awaiting the outcome of the ministerial review, the mining company last year agreed with AAPA’s recommendation to negotiate a separate agreement with the Northern Land Council (NLC) on behalf of a broader range of custodians.
In correspondence obtained by the ABC through Freedom of Information, Glencore told AAPA in February 2020 that the company was facing “significant time pressures in which to have the [sacred site authorisation] granted if mining is to continue in its current format”.
Glencore said it was, therefore, willing to negotiate with the NLC, “in order to resolve this matter as quickly and efficiently as possible” and “alleviate the concerns that MRM are not consulting with the correct custodians”.
Meeting held to select negotiating team
The development of a potential Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) between traditional owners and the mining company reached a milestone this month when the NLC held a meeting in Borroloola, where local custodians selected a negotiating team.
Its negotiations, which are likely to extend into next year, will include discussions about financial benefits, environmental protection and sacred sites, among other issues.
The team is primarily made up of members of three of the four clan groups in the region, including the Gurdanji, Yanyuwa and Yanyuwa-Marra people, who hold native title rights over the mine and Bing Bong port.
But Garawa man Jack Green, who has been a vocal critic of the mine’s environmental and cultural legacy, said the negotiating team would have had a stronger hand if his own clan was also included.
“There are four clan groups [in the Borroloola region] and we always stick together when negotiating deals or anything in this area,” Mr Green said.
Fellow Garawa man Keith Rory also expressed disappointment about the process.
“The only one way to protect our land is not with one or two clan groups [but] with the four clan groups of Borroloola,” Mr Rory said.
NLC says process tied to native title ruling
A spokesperson for the NLC told the ABC the ILUA negotiations had to be in line with the relevant native title determination to ensure any potential agreement was valid.
The spokesperson added that some people with Garawa “affiliations” had been selected on the negotiating team, and that Garawa people had been invited to this month’s meeting as “neighbouring groups” of the mine and port.
The NLC spokesperson also defended separate criticism from Mr Rory that the meeting proceeded against his wishes after the death of a relative, saying the council had consulted with other elders, who agreed for the meeting to continue.
If an ILUA is eventually reached, it would mark a major shift in relations between the McArthur River Mine and the local Aboriginal clans who, for many years, have battled against the environmental and cultural impacts of the mine.
“We are all too aware that this has been a difficult struggle that has gone on far too long,” the NLC spokesperson said.
“Traditional owners have created for themselves an opportunity to begin a genuine negotiation with MRM.
“This is an opportunity that traditional owners and the NLC have asked for since the McArthur River Project was first proposed.”