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The Battle of Beetaloo – NT First Nations unite to stop fracking On Country

31 Mar 2022

The Garrwa, Yanyuwa and Marra peoples of Borroloola know all too well the devastation created by mining and they understand that, for most governments, if they have to choose between mining and First Nations then mining wins. Every time.

Group of Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory holding banner: Don't Frack The NT

The first ever Senate inquiry into fracking, specifically in the Beetaloo Basin, heard evidence directly from Traditional Owners in Darwin last week. Pastoralists have united with First Nations campaigners from remote communities across the Northern Territory to tell politicians they do not consent to fracking on their lands.

I was invited by the First Nations Campaigns Unit of GetUp to attend and independently report on how Traditional Owners have relentlessly opposed opening the Beetaloo Basin to fracking, which threatens sacred sites, cultural heritage, water supplies and would release millions of tonnes of climate-wrecking carbon into the atmosphere.

The Aboriginal delegation arrived in Darwin for the Oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo Basin Senate Enquiry into Fracking. The GetUp First Nations Justice team, led by Larissa Baldwin and Amy Gordon, initiated logistical support to transport traditional owners from throughout the NT to stand in solidarity against the environmental, physical, and cultural threats that Shale Gas hydraulic fracturing inevitably brings.

During the briefing session, held the day before the public session of the inquiry, Yanyuwa man Nicholas Fitzpatrick highlighted how much is at stake.

“Water is life, you taking our water, you taking our life. We try to live white ways but our spirit belongs to the country.”

Many of the First Nations activists and campaigners such as Garrwa man Gadrian Hoosan pointed to the never-ending NT Intervention that was seen by some when it began in 2007 as a Canberra-led siege against Aboriginal Land Rights intended to insidiously breach and weaken the independence of First Nations autonomy.

“The NT Intervention. This what it’s about.”

Bubba/Brother Gadrian has had enough of the broken promises from mining companies and the politicians that back them.

“We put a stop on them. We keep saying ‘no’ to them. If we all pull together, we can beat them, tell them to get out of our land and go away, that’s the only way. You rip the story off the land, you can’t replace that”

The Garrwa, Yanyuwa and Marra peoples of Borroloola know all too well the devastation created by mining endorsed by governments. This was exemplified in 2009 when open-cut expansion at McArthur River was approved by then Environment Minister, Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett.

Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Alawa, Gudanji, Mudburra, Arrernte, Warramungu and Jingili nations made their presence known following the Senate Inquiry that heard their concerns in their fight against fracking. Photo: @Bunbajee

At Black Tank, 50 kilometres north of Mparntwe, Veronica Kngwarraye Lynch has stood up to fracking exploration on the Arrernte country she belongs to.

Kngwarraye advocates a homelands and outstations revival where family-clan groups and traditional owners reap the cultural, spiritual, physical and financial benefits from being On Country.

450 kilometres up the Stuart Highway is Jurnkkurakurr, where Warlmanpa traditional owner Dianne Stokes led the 2006 campaign to protect Manuwangku against the Muckaty Station nuclear waste dump proposal.

Another 700km up to Minyerri, an hour’s drive back east from Mataranka, towards the Gulf of Carpentaria and rounding the northern arc of the Beetaloo Basin, Alawa Nation and traditional owner and Nurradinji AC member Naomi Ngumutjulu Wilfred is campaigning to assert Aboriginal Rights, enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, where free, prior and informed consent must be obtained without coercion by mining multinationals, governments and Land Councils.

“We have waterline connection, goes right down from Beetaloo Basin down through to Ngukkur. Water, like ‘im very important. Because we grew up on the land when it (was just) bush. No house on the land, we lived on that water. When my parents had no water, they could dig down in the sand to get the water.”

The Aboriginal delegation arrived in Darwin for the Oil and gas exploration and production in the Beetaloo Basin Senate Enquiry into Fracking. The GetUp First Nations Justice team, led by Larissa Baldwin and Amy Gordon, initiated logistical support to transport traditional owners from throughout the NT to stand in solidarity against the environmental, physical and cultural threats that Shale Gas hydraulic fracturing inevitably brings.

Larissa Baldwin, proud Widjabul Wia-Bal woman and the Director of the First Nations Justice team at GetUp, is calling for measures to be implemented that legally enshrine First Nations values and concerns over our lands and cultures.

“The continual power imbalance needs to be addressed. Laws would include fines for damage to country which go back to communities instead of governments. Genuine relationships between entities involved and all traditional owner groups are essential.”

Baldwin called for genuine leadership from the federal government and substantial investment in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and services.

“First Nations communities have been on the frontline of crisis after crisis, from overcrowded housing to overheating, flooded roads and food shortages. If the Morrison Government really cared, they’d be supporting these communities – not writing cheques to gas corporations to destroy them.”

Baldwin cited one incident involving Origin Energy where three casing wells allegedly failed twelve times with toxic fluid materials unaccounted for at aquifer levels. Proponents argue that fracking has the potential to provide more oil and gas resources to consumers, but the stark reality is that the extraction process has long-lasting negative impacts on the surrounding environment. Air pollution and water contamination from the toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are the greatest worry.  The required wastewater disposal and the immense impacts on water supplies are significant issues directly concerning traditional owners, environmentalists and pastoralists.

There have been allegations of corrupt links between the Empire fracking company and the federal Liberal Party that saw Prime Minister Scott Morrison impulsively green-light $50 million in funding to get Beetaloo off the ground, as well as claims that a Russian billionaire oligarch is linked to the Falcon Oil and Gas company.

Borroloola First Nations traditional owners also travelled from the eastern Territory border in the Gulf of Carpentaria to the NT capital, 1000 kilometres north-west, to meet with Senators and face-off with mining companies and land councils.pĺ ppl

The public submissions made by First Nations impacted by Fracking in the NT demonstrate their commitment to stand up for their land rights and for climate justice. GetUp’s one million members stand united behind Traditional Owners from Yanyuwa, Garrwa, Alawa, Gudanji, Mudburra, Arrernte, Warramungu and Jingili nations in their fight against fracking.

Nurrdalinji is the Alawa collective and in coloniser language translates to ‘mixed tribe’. Despite international turmoil and human rights atrocities occurring daily now in opposite hemispheres, there’s a call and response, a unity that fracking is unreliable, untenable, unethical and discounting certain mining and political investors, insulting to traditional owners, pastoralists, community members and anyone that understands the impacts of climate change we all face these days. Alawa traditional owners are pleading for unity as Australians, demanding rights to their lands and waters, echoed through the Lock The Gate campaigns in southern and eastern states.

Also attending the Senate Inquiry was Isa McDinny, eldest sister to stalwart Garrwa environmental campaigner Nancy McDinny: she is also my Father’s Cousin-Sister from Borroloola.

The realisation of kinship ties reinforces how intricately intertwined our neighbouring Gulf communities are but the direct cultural connections have been disconnected and discontinued thanks to the overbearing and ongoing impacts of colonisation. Kilmu/Family have had to campaign and speak out against the injustice and environmental degradation of the McArthur River since well before and well after (frontman for Midnight Oil) Peter Garrett approved the 5500 metre destruction of the McArthur River.  The open-cut expansion of the McArthur River Mine included obliteration of a sacred Men’s Ceremony site that our Lardil peoples also accessed from over 300 kilometres away.

The Senate Inquiry public hearings on the first day astoundingly heard a mining company representative claim to have no Indigenous people employed in the 40-odd staff because everyone had to have university qualifications and there were allegedly no Indigenous applicants for scholarships that were offered. The hearing became fiery when Liberal Senator Sam McMahon, at one stage, accused Senator Lidia Thorpe of being ‘racist’ for calling her ‘a white woman’.

First Nations senators Malarndirri McCarthy, Lidia Thorpe and Dorinda Cox applaud traditional owners from the Beetaloo Basin region and wider Northern Territory following the Senate Inquiry hearings into fracking. Photo: @Bunbajee

The closed hearing session on the second day was the first time ever that only Aboriginal parliamentarians have sat to hear out impassioned and inspiring community-driven leadership.

As Nurrdalinji raced from the Darwin Inquiry sessions to meet again with pastoralists in Daly Waters some 600 km back down the Stuart Highway, there is hope for authentic representation and leadership from those wielding political power as we again head towards another circus that is the Australian election cycle. Hope that, despite the rhetoric surrounding identities and personalities, the greater threats that we’re already witness and victims to from the devastation of ravaging bushfires and unprecedented torrential flooding is testament that ‘our First Scientists’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and knowledge-keepers, must not only be listened to but also encouraged and empowered for the betterment of the whole country.

The fact that there was a wholly female First Nations panel of senators, WA Greens senator and Yamatji-Noongar woman Dorinda Cox, Lidia Thorpe, proud DjabWurrung Gunnai Gunditjmara woman and Australian Greens senator from Victoria and Malarndirri McCarthy who is directly related to the Yanyuwa, Garrwa & Marra nations being heard, gives hope to some that justice and equality can be attained when First Nations peoples ourselves have opportunity to control the systems that typically disenfranchise, disempower and marginalise us.

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