Western Australia has always been proud of its natural resources and mining industries. Criticise it, and you bare the wrath of not only the elitism of rich investors and industrialists, but pretty much 80 to 90% of the population.
Woodside is considered one of the pride. When meeting its representatives in 2003, as one of the 40 of so school students attending the “Australian Student Mineral Venture”, we were told in loud volumes about how they employed Aborigines too … obviously the only tick box needed to be ethical, or so they thought.
But that’s not where Woodside’s interests lie. For the past week, 60 Aboriginal protesters from the Broome region have been taking part in a sit/lie-in to prevent bulldozers from destroying the unique James Price Point area for a Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) precinct.
This, even before environment minister Tony Burke has made his decision on whether to go ahead with the LNG project. Of these, two protesters have already been arrested and WA police have sent in a special police troop to “deal” with the peaceful protesters.
In comments to the press, the protesters have highlighted their rights under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a charter that Australia endorsed in 2009, under a Labor government.
Specifically, they highlight article 10 and 25:
Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories. No relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return.
Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.
Woodside has received an official agreement to use this land from the Goolarabooloo/Jabirr Jabirr peoples, whose land this is. But local people have been saying that their hand was pushed to accept the $1.5 billion in benefits in return for use of the area.
Furthermore, statements suggest not all of the local indigenous peoples were allowed to vote before this decision was made. The decision seems to have been made by the Land Council, which local people say does not fairly represent them. If this is the case, article 10 stands.
Even if the vote had been valid, the pressure placed on the group may have forced them to give in, especially considering their circumstances.
In a Four Corners program assessing the proposal last year, WA Premier Colin Barnett stated: “I know people will see this interview and say, you know, he’s only after development, he doesn’t care about the environment, doesn’t care about the Aborigines.
“Well, I’d say to people away from Western Australia, you go up there and look in the face of those little children and you tell them what you can offer them.”
If that’s not a clear suggestion of what the government thinks of Aboriginal people, nothing is. Barnett’s view of Aborigines is coloured by his patronising vision of them — which lead him to argue that should the Kimberley Land Council refuse to come to an agreement, he would force compulsory acquisition.
Has Barnett forced the local peoples to accept an agreement to give up their lands with the threat of compulsory acquisition?
If Barnett is worried about Aboriginal poverty, why should a company have to destroy native land for Aboriginal people to receive benefits that they should be getting from the government?
Why is the compensation not given to the Kimberley Land Council for it to decide how to use it, instead of Woodside’s benefit handouts?
And if the community was eager to accept these benefits from Woodside, why are there 60-odd people blocking the main road into the area?
Whatever the case, there is something uncomfortable here.
Without too much discussion on the role of environmentalists in renouncing those Aboriginal communities that were swayed by the proposal as not truly “native”, there is a clear environmental case for not allowing the gas piping to go ahead. The least of these has been the latest Australian Heritage Council report that recommends that the James Price Point be placed in a Natural Reserve.
[Reprinted from Topsoil: Grassroots writing for International Solidarity.]