Stop Century Zinc's land grab!

July 17, 1996

By John Nebauer

BRISBANE — As part of their campaign to overturn the Native Title Act and undermine the ability of Aboriginal communities to defend their interests against corporate giants, the Queensland and federal governments are attempting to legislate to push through the proposed Century Zinc mine in far north Queensland.

In June 1994, the Waayani people lodged a native title claim over part of the Lawn Hill cattle station on which Century Zinc planned to establish the world's largest zinc mine. The establishment press has consistently claimed that intransigence on the part of the Aboriginal community has halted the development of the $1.1 billion project.

In fact, if RTZ-CRA (the parent company of Century Zinc) is in a hole, it is CRA and the Queensland government which have been wielding the shovel. CRA made a compensation offer to the Waayani which doesn't depend upon the Waayani proving native title. At the same time, CRA and the state government were involved in litigation to prevent the Waayani putting a claim before the Native Title Tribunal.

The intervention of CRA and the state government has delayed the process by almost two years, the time spent before the litigation was resolved in favour of the Waayani. Had CRA and the government not undertaken litigation, the formal six-month negotiating period — a requirement of the Native Title Act — could have begun in June 1994. However, it did not begin until February, and the government did not issue notices to allow the negotiation process to begin until May. The Native Title Act negotiating period will not expire until November.

CRA says Century Zinc has until September 30 to secure the titles for the project or funding will be withdrawn. This is despite a 12-month extension of the deadline to supply ore to its main customer, the Dutch smelter Budel Zinc.

Queensland Premier Robert Borbidge is planning to introduce legislation to give the company tenure over the mine site and is attempting to acquire 20,000 hectares over which the zinc slurry pipeline would run. While he hasn't released the details, Borbidge hopes that the legislation will act as a benchmark for other Australian state governments trying to get mining projects started.

However, any enabling legislation could run into constitutional problems because it could be overruled by the Native Title Act. Under Section 26 (2D) of the act, the federal government has the power to override the Native Title Tribunal "in the national interest". The federal government foreshadowed legislation to protect CRA from native title claims on July 3, with PM John Howard claiming that it was reasonable for the government to legislate to ensure a project of such national interest was not undermined.

A Century spokesperson said that the cost of not proceeding with the mine "would mean foregoing all of the benefits, including 750 jobs directly related to the project, as well as the indirect generation nationally of a further 2300 jobs".

However, far more sustainable jobs could be created by the government in public works, particularly in health, education and housing. The number of jobs created by the Century project is pretty insignificant.

It's also claimed that the local Aboriginal people would benefit from the mine. CRA offered $60 million to the local community over 20 years. Most of the "value" in this deal includes a guaranteed 200 jobs for on-site Aborigines, training schemes and the transfer of some interests in CRA-owned cattle stations to the Carpentaria Land Council.

In June, Borbidge said that "Aboriginal intransigence" would threaten essential services, such as health, to the community. Spokesperson for the Gkuthaarn people (on whose land the slurry pipeline would run) Jerry Callope said Aboriginal people were being expected to bargain for essential services.

"They are saying to Aboriginal people that if you agree to this project then we will give you all this infrastructure support, but if you do not ... They won't give it to us unless we sign away our native title, our human rights and our cultural beliefs", he said.

Such services for the local communities should not be dependent upon the mine going ahead. At present, the general community doesn't have to negotiate a mine to have the local school built, for example. The main interest being served by this mine is that of the directors of CRA and Century Zinc.

Finding scapegoats

Following the Queensland government and CRA's failure to win their litigation against the Waayani native title claim, they have had to find a scapegoat — Murrandoo Yanner of the Cape York Land Council. The Courier Mail is pushing the government's line that the majority of the local inhabitants favour the mine while Yanner, the firebrand, is alone in his opposition.

The July 6 Courier Mail stated that, "From the start, Yanner has been implacably opposed to the project and has managed, by dint of his own personality and position in his community, to carry some Gulf opinion with him. He has been the immovable object in the path of development of ... the mine."

The implication is that Yanner is in a minority within his community. This impression was reinforced by a meeting of Gulf Aborigines on June 28 which voted 12-11 in favour of the mine going ahead.

Yanner said that the vote was not valid because the meeting had rescinded the motion and voted for a three-week extension. At a second meeting on July 4 the vote was 19-0 against the mine. It is difficult to see how Yanner could be such a formidable obstacle unless there were widespread concerns within the community over the proposed mine.

The assertion that Yanner has always opposed the mine is untrue. The main concern is not over the mine per se but over the method of transporting ore from the mine site to the coast. At present CRA plans to build a pipeline to carry ore slurry 290 kilometres to Karumba on the Carpentaria coast. The pipeline will cross about 90 kilometres of Waayani land and 200 kilometres of Gkuthaarn land.

Jerry Callope of the Gkuthaarn Aboriginal Corporation and Murrandoo Yanner have opposed the pipeline on environmental grounds. This is of particular concern because many in the local community lead a traditional lifestyle and rely on the Gulf for their food.

Environmental concerns

The communities concerned have argued for the route to be shifted to Cloncurry from where the ore could be railed to Townsville. Callope said, "The costs of piping from Lawn Hill to Karamba is the same as to Cloncurry, with the rail cost extra. If the government was really fair dinkum about the project going ahead and they wanted to do things for the good of the nation and the good of the state of Queensland, then they would encourage the rail option."

Callope argues that the rail option would revitalise businesses along the route, build up the rail infrastructure and provide transport for any other mineral deposits in the Carpentaria region.

Murrandoo Yanner agrees. "If [the government and CRA] take the other option of piping to Cloncurry and railing it to Townsville they're going resurrect a lot of dying towns along the way ... A lot of people have forgotten about those old railway workers and all those families along that route."

Yanner has made it clear that the mine would proceed without Aboriginal opposition if CRA shelved its plans for a Gulf pipeline. "The ball is in Century's court. They can either let it fall at their feet and get aced or they can volley it back with a strong one telling us that they are going with the Townsville option."

The rail option would cost Century $35 million per year. As Century has already spent $200 million to prove up the prospect and provide infrastructure, and expects an income of over $6 billion during the life of the mine, this is not an unreasonable expenditure.

When looked at this way, it would seem that nothing major has prevented the mine from going ahead. If the issue was just this mine, it would be operating now. But the Century Zinc controversy serves a broader purpose: the desire of governments and corporations to have carte blanche on land claimed by Aboriginal people. Their aim is to roll back the gains from the Mabo decision and to scrap, or at least greatly curb, the provisions set out in the Native Title Act which, in its present form, can at most only force negotiations.

This was spelt out by the July 6 Courier Mail which said that, "Century and its native title implications can make or break other developments planned for the north-west minerals province ... There are 13 projects — ranging from massive to very significant — on the drawing boards and awaiting the green light that resolution of the Century dispute would give."

The CRA/government intransigence over Century Zinc is designed to further limit Aboriginal people's rights to negotiate over land in favour of mining companies' profits. The July 8 Australian Financial Review summed it up when it editorialised that, "Both governments should intervene now and confirm Century Zinc's title to the land. Canberra should also fix the root of the problem — the Native Title Act".

The dispossession of the Aboriginal people from their land has been central to the development of Australian capitalism. Justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people will only happen when they can take control of their own lives by controlling their land. This makes the campaign to defend Aboriginal land rights even more urgent.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.