This statement was released on July 19 by the Protect Arnhem Land community group, based in Maningrida, Northern Territory; The Wilderness Society; the Environment Centre NT; and the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
Arnhem Land traditional owners have forced US oil and gas company Paltar to meet with them by travelling to the firm’s Australian headquarters in Sydney.
Paltar had steadfastly refused to talk to the traditional owners about its near-shore drilling plans that threaten their food, water and culture.
The firm then agreed to a meeting only after the traditional owners said they were coming to Sydney. After media inquiries about the Sydney visit, the company then issued a press statement saying they would consult with traditional owners.
The traditional owners asked Paltar to be good corporate citizens and withdraw the permit applications.
The traditional owners are putting together a bark petition to oppose the drilling — just as Arnhem Land traditional owners from Yirrkala did 50 years ago to oppose a mining development and start the land rights movement.
To draw attention to their struggle, they performed traditional dances and songs outside Paltar’s Sydney office on July 19.
Paltar has applied for about 30 permits to drill for oil and gas along the length of the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land coast. Paltar also plans to use the controversial fracking technique to split the bedrock, risking groundwater sources that Aboriginal communities need for fresh water.
“We don’t trust mining companies,” traditional owner Ben Marrjarra Pascoe said.
“Mining companies, they just kill the land, kill the trees, kill the animals and what do they leave? They just leave behind their mess. White man makes mess; Black man cleans up white man’s mess. We’re the ones who are going to suffer long term.’
Arnhem Land traditional owners have a proud past in seeing off pastoralists and miners before the area was declared an Aboriginal reserve in 1931, and they don’t plan on stopping now. That fierce independence has helped them keep their culture alive and vibrant.
Wilderness Society Northern Australia campaign manager Gavan McFadzean said: “Arnhem Land is the last region of Australia’s Top End to be targeted by the resources industry after Cape York and the Kimberley, which recently saw off Woodside’s proposed gas factory.
"Arnhem Land is the heart of the tropical savannas and rivers of northern Australia, by far the largest and most intact tropical savanna left in the world today.”
Australian Marine Conservation Society Northern Marine campaigner Daisy Barham said: “The Top End has the healthiest shallow tropical seas anywhere in the world, yet oil, gas and mining are quickly becoming an enormous threat to this fragile place.”
The traditional owners only found out about the drilling after they were told about a small advertisement in the Northern Territory News in November. In December, 250 people descended on the small town of Maningrida to voice their opposition to the drilling.
In the Northern Territory, traditional owners can veto resource developments on their land but they do not have control of the adjoining sea, which coastal groups say is as important as the land — not only is it their food source but it is integral to their culture and spiritual beliefs.
The traditional owners said they opposed Paltar’s plans. A letter from Paltar was seen by the traditional owners as only worthy of burning.
The Traditional owners are scared that any accidents will threaten their food source and existence.
Eddie Mason, who is one five Traditional owners visiting Sydney, said: “All of these blackfellas all around Arnhem Land will be starving because that’s their natural tucker, that’s their food, that’s their life. You’re killing him, the black man.”
Wildlife in the area includes many threatened and rare species such as six of the seven sea turtle species in the world, dugongs, coastal dolphins, northern quolls, Oenpelli pythons, gouldian finches and bandicoots.
The diversity of freshwater fish is among the highest in Australia. It is home to some of the world’s last major free-flowing rivers including the Liverpool, Roper, Blyth and Goyder rivers.
The Arnhem Land traditional owners visiting Sydney are Eddie Mason, Rosita Ankin, Alice Eather Williams, Elston Maxwell and Ross Brian.