Gomeroi Elders and community members say outrage, insult, disrespect and shock are not enough to describe their feelings towards Whitehaven Coal’s actions around the Maules Creek mine project, vowing to step up their fight to protect sacred burial land.
The Traditional Owners have written to Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt on more than two occasions asking for an immediate halt on the project’s work under the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Heritage (Interim Protection) Act 1984 to prevent the potential desecration of burial sites.
Seeking the minister’s urgent intervention, elders say they have provided detailed documentation in relation to the areas of concern but say they have been largely “ignored and silenced by bureaucracy”, and instead of being granted an investigation to address their concerns, received a letter informing them to “work constructively with Whitehaven”.
“Ancestors of mine are buried in this area and Whitehaven Coal won’t even allow our elders and community to access our burial sites for ceremony and to collect cultural materials of importance – we are being treated with disrespect and contempt,” spokesperson Dolly Talbott said.
Gomeroi man Stephen Talbott says the Maules Creek mine would see more than 4000 acres of "culturally significant forest, artefacts and cultural values" cleared and said it has not been properly assessed.
"There hasn't been a proper consultation process, the management plan is flawed and we don't believe that our people have been treated with proper respect or that our concerns about the destruction of cultural heritage have been addressed,” he said.
In a statement released by Gomeroi Elders today, they say requests to salvage cultural artefacts have been met with refusal by Whitehaven, with bulldozers moving on to sacred areas.
Elders claim some of its members tried to access to the site last week in order to “undertake ceremony for the desecration of our ancestor’s burials and destruction of our women’s area” but were denied access by Police and Whitehaven’s manager Brain Cole who allegedly said:
“There is nothing down there for you.”
Last week Labor spokeswoman, Senator Claire Moore, said the stop-work order had been mishandled by the Federal Government.
"My understanding is that it went through to Minister Hunt who is the Minister for Environment; it was put, then, to Minister Scullion who's the Minister for Aboriginal and Islander Affairs," she said.
"It has since been returned, apparently to Minister Hunt; we're talking November and we're now in January and the understanding is some of the sites have already had bulldozers in."
Moore says it's not enough for Whitehaven to say it has the support of a majority of traditional owners if no one knows who's involved.
"That is the best way to create more division and more anger if a company can say, 'We had the majority and that ends the discussion,'" she said.
"Exactly who are the majority? A majority of what? What constitutes the group? And who, indeed, are the authorised elders who can speak for that community and there does seem to be some confusion and some concern about that."
The Aboriginal community has been split over the management plan, however Talbott said elders who have challenged the mine’s plan shouldn’t be labelled as “difficult”.
“We have been excluded from participating because we are considered to be activists or argumentative or problematic and unconstructive and a majority voice,” the statement read.
“Yes we are angry and yes we have stood up and will continue to stand up to what we have experiences as Corporate bullying and standover disempowering tactics when it affects our culture and heritage.”
Speaking to Australian Mining, Talbott said the action was not about stopping the mine’s development, but rather to ensure sacred cultural areas are not destroyed.
He said some elders felt disrespected by Whitehaven and let down by the government’s failure to act on their concerns.
“Calling elders a minority is just disrespectful,” Talbott said.
“We just want to protect what needs to be protected, but it seems as though Whitehaven is being protected.
“Whitehaven is just demand and conquer.”
Talbott said while the company is employing Indigenous representatives at the site, they were not elders from the local area, and this in itself had a caused a rift within the Indigenous community.
“Once these sited are destroyed you can’t get them back,” he said.
“But because we’re asking them to do the right thing we get excluded.”
In an emailed statement, Whitehaven said it had “worked incredibly hard with all Registered Aboriginal Parties to ensure sites of cultural significance are respected and preserved.”
“We understand that Minister Hunt is considering claims put to him by members of the Gomeroi people but that the Minister has not made any decisions on how to respond,” a company spokesperson said.
“The Minister has stated his desire to ensure these matters are dealt with respectfully and constructively and Whitehaven entirely shares this position.”
In the meantime, Tradition Owners are vowing to hold a number of rallies and protests which they say will keep the issue in the spotlight.
“Our message is simple – we will not be going away and we will not be silenced.”