Recent reports that, Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) is pushing ahead with the “low-cost Firetail deposit” at its Solomon Project, while scaling back other operations, have raised fears of a ‘heritage holocaust’ as FMG scrambles for cash flow to weather the freefall in iron ore price.
These fears follow confirmation in documents released by the Department of Indigenous Affairs (DIA), under the Freedom of Information Act, that FMG has destroyed two Yindjibarndi sites and damaged a third at Solomon with impunity, and has “under-reported” sites in the project area by about 30%.
When the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), in November last year, accused FMG of damaging Yindjibarndi sites, FMG responded with a Press Release that said: “Michael Woodley’s allegations that Fortescue has damaged sacred sites are untrue”. The press release of 7 November 2011 stated, FMG “categorically rejects offensive claims that it is operating unlawfully regarding Aboriginal heritage sites at its Solomon Hub project.”
However documents released by DIA reveal that the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee (ACMC) requested DIA officers to undertake an on-ground inspection at Solomon to resolve “issues regarding the veracity comprehensiveness of the heritage information provided by FMG”; and that this inspection confirmed:
—two Yindjibarndi sites were completely destroyed, leaving DIA with “no possibility of further assessment”, and another was partially destroyed between September and November last year;
—at least 17 sites had been “declassified” by FMG’s heritage consultants; and,
—FMG had “under reported possible heritage sites on the Solomon Firetail Project Area by about 30%.”
This evidence contradicts FMG’s denials and demonstrates the truth of both Michael Woodley’s allegations and repeated objections by YAC to DIA, over the past 18 months, that FMG was under-reporting and de-classifying sites in the Solomon Project area.
A crucial factor in the exposure of FMG’s breach was the revelation by archaeologist Sue Singleton (of Eureka Heritage, NSW), that FMG had coerced her into removing expert ethnographic information from a report that FMG “considered prejudicial” to its business; and the release of Ms Singleton’s database of Yindjibarndi sites, which enabled DIA to detect omissions in FMG’s reports.
Michael Woodley, CEO of YAC, said, “What is so troubling about these revelations is that they were accidental. If not for the courageous actions of a whistleblower and the media attention this generated last November, DIA officers would not have made their on-ground inspection, and this would have never come to light. We have no doubt that many other sites have been destroyed or damaged, because the heritage protection system in WA is wide open to abuse.”
The FOI documents also reveal that FMG avoided prosecution for destroying the sites by shifting the blame and responsibility on to a senior archaeologist, Rebecca Yit of Alpha Archaeology: “Fortescue does not deny that the impacting works were undertaken pursuant to, and in accordance with, Permits issued by Fortescue. Those Permits were issued on the basis of (incorrect) information provided by Rebecca Yit of Alpha Archaeology Pty Ltd (‘Alpha’).“
A Memorandum to DIA Director General, Cliff Weeks, from DIA Compliance Officer James Cook describes FMG’s strategy in subverting WA heritage protection measures: “FMG’s compliance with the AHA has been variable. As FMG often work to tight timeframes, they often submit information relating to applications under section 18 at very late notice, resulting in insufficient time being given to the department to assess that information.”
Despite clear evidence of the under-reporting, declassification, and destruction of sites, the Director General of DIA, Cliff Weeks, and the Minister of Indigenous Affairs, Peter Collier, acted against the advice of the ACMC and adopted a proposal put by FMG for addressing the problem of “declassified” sites. The documents reveal that they also ignored the ACMC’s recommendation that the Minister refuse to give his consent for FMG to continue with its development in the Solomon area until all sites had been properly identified and assessed for significance. Instead the Minister approved FMG’s application to destroy the sites it had reported, on condition that FMG undertake “a more detailed recording, excavation and analysis of the sites”.
YAC’s In-House Legal Counsel, George Irving, said:
“The Aboriginal Heritage Act protects all sites of significance to the Indigenous peoples of this State, unless and until the Minister gives his consent for their destruction. Under the Act, an assessment of the significance of any indigenous site, by the ACMC, is a pre-condition to the exercise of the Minister’s power to give such consent.
It is apparent from the FOI documents that the ACMC has not been given reliable and relevant information by FMG about sites in the areas it wishes to develop; and, that a large number of sites have either not been reported to the ACMC or have been ‘declassified’ as sites.
Although the decision made by the Minister requires additional ‘recording’ and ‘analysis’ of the sites that were reported by FMG before their destruction, the decision obviously precludes any possibility of the ACMC carrying out its statutory responsibility to assess the significance of those sites, and all other sites in FMG’s development area, because the Minister has already given his consent for the development to proceed. It seems clear that the interest of FMG, in extracting the mineral wealth from Yindjibarndi country, is more important to the Minister for Indigenous Affairs than Indigenous sites of significance in that country, which date back more than forty thousand years—that’s 35,000 years before Stonehenge.”
Other disturbing aspects of this debacle of distress to the Yindjibarndi People, are:
—YAC, the native Title Representative Body (NTRB) of the Yindjibarndi people, was at no point informed by DIA or FMG about the sites that were destroyed;
—Although YAC has sought access to lands within FMG’s Solomon Project area in order to identify and precisely record Yindjibarndi cultural sites on several occasions, entry has repeatedly been barred, by physical barricades and legal threats, while DIA has sat on its hands; and
—While the DIA Compliance Unit launched an investigation into possible breaches of the Aboriginal Heritage Act by FMG, and also investigated allegations by Ms Singleton, the outcomes of these investigations have been suppressed, and DIA has backed down from moves to prosecute FMG.
Finally, YAC would like to correct the record with regard to FMG’s denigration, in press releases, of Michael Woodley’s cultural standing, and claims that he did not have the support of his community. These claims have also been shown to be malicious and misleading by the overwhelming support shown to YAC and Mr Woodley in recent plebiscites, and by an affidavit of evidence sworn by centenarian and Yindjibarndi Lawman of high degree, Mr Ned Cheedy, before his passing earlier this year, which unequivocally affirms the cultural authority of Mr Woodley.
Mr Woodley said that he hoped the broader community would be less credulous of FMG in the future, and demand instead that the Government give real protection to Indigenous heritage:
“I am glad that FMG’s attack on me and the credibility of Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation has been shown up for what it is, a smear campaign based on misinformation, however I am bitterly disappointed in the performance of the Minister, Peter Collier, a self-professed ‘close personal friend’ of Andrew Forrest, and the Director General, Cliff Weeks.
“While it is not surprising that a ‘maverick’ company like Fortescue is so contemptuous of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, and in so much rush to push through its developments, it is a disgrace that a Minister of the Crown and a departmental head have abandoned our heritage to corporate greed. They have betrayed the confidence of the people of this State and shown themselves to be unfit for office.
“The Aboriginal people of Western Australia should be horrified that Mr Collier is now in charge of reviewing the Aboriginal Heritage Act. On his performance to date we can expect the gutting of an already weak Act. It spells more heartbreak for our people.”