Could Twiggy’s ‘native title swindle’ come undone?

Yindjibarndi people and supporters protested outside the Fortescue Metals Group AGM, November. Photo: Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Co

Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) may soon have a win against the mining corporation they allege has used dirty tactics and manipulation to force them into a mining deal they don’t want.

Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), owned by mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, said it had secured the permission of traditional owners to start production on its $5 billion Solomon Hub iron ore project on Aboriginal land near Roebourne, WA.

On March 16 last year, a breakaway group from YAC called Wirlu Murra Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation held a meeting that supposedly endorsed Fortescue’s mine. But YAC says this group of 200 people does not represent the traditional owners of the area.

YAC recorded the Wirlu Murra meeting . The film shows how YAC anthropologist Phil Davies had the microphone taken from him when he objected to the way the meeting was conducted. The meeting was then summarily closed down.

YAC points to , that clearly rejected Fortescue’s proposals. As a result, YAC has made an application to the federal court to overturn Fortescue’s agreement with the breakaway group and negotiate an agreement with YAC. The hearing for the decision was set for August 30 and 31.

At the heart of the dispute is Fortescue’s offer to YAC. Fortescue has offered the community $4 million a year to use the land, with extra promised for training and “business development”. YAC is pushing for 0.5% per tonne of mining revenue,

This is far less than the 2.5% per tonne that Gina Rinehart receives from Rio Tinto for her iron ore interests in the Pilbara.

YAC represents 800 Aboriginal people most of whom call the small town of Roebourne home. Unemployment is at 75% and YAC says it needs the funds to lift its people out of poverty.

Forrest has defended the breakaway meeting, saying that the agreement would include special employment programs beyond the mining revenue he described as just “mining welfare”.

“I thought it was a superb meeting, it was a very tough meeting and the community voted 126 - 0 for opportunity and responsibility over welfare.”

But the dispute is not just about revenue. YAC alleges that Fortescue has restricted access to their traditional lands and says its project threatens sacred sites. In November, YAC said: “Land of great cultural importance is being mutilated to meet the corporate objectives of Fortescue at its Solomon Project, including sacred sites and ‘living heritage’ areas that date back thousands of years.”

Griffith University native title expert Professor Ciaran O'Faircheallaigh said the law was stacked against Aboriginal people in dealing with mining companies.

O’Faircheallaigh said: “When a mining company sits down to negotiate with native title parties there is a six-month period of negotiation. The mining company knows that at the end of the six months it can go to the National Native Title Tribunal and get its mining lease.

“This is a very simple and fundamental point. If one bargaining party is under enormous pressure to do a deal and the other one isn't, the people who are under pressure generally have to give in and that's what's happened and that's why, except where Aboriginal people have major political power, deals tend to be very uneven.”

Last April, Australian National University Professor John Altman questioned in WAToday why multibillion-dollar companies like Fortescue are able to directly negotiate with “people who are in general, poor and marginalised and often neglected by the state”.

He said: “The heart of this problem is that in any negotiations those native title groups are in a very weak position. They're finding out that they don't have these exclusive rights to the land.

"They cannot stop him, only negotiate terms and conditions."

Fortescue has been open about its readiness to use the courts to get the agreement it wants. At a meeting in 2008 : “Fortescue will always use legal avenues to get our mining leases and roads and whatever else. I'm not going to hide that. We will do that every time, because we are in a hurry, in a rush.”

YAC CEO Michael Woodley said on August 29: “After two years of meddling and attacks against us in the courts, the overwhelming support of our people in recent meetings is a win for Yindjibarndi people-power against the divisive and under-handed tactics of FMG.

“I hope the Yindjibarndi voice in both these meetings sends a message to Fortescue, and they come back to us with a fair agreement in line with standards already set by other more responsible companies we are working with.”