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Australian Indigenous group to sue government over mining operations in Northern Territory

Gumatj people. Photo by Bruce, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

At the opening on the Garma festival on Aboriginal land in Australia’s Northern Territory, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, the leader of the Gumatj, one of 13 Yolngu clans of North East Arnhem Land, said before the Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyat that he and his people will be suing the commonwealth government to seek compensation for the loss of native title.

The lawsuit is related to mining activities carried out in their traditional territory by the North Australian Bauxite and Alumina Company, known as Nabalco, and the world’s second-largest miner, Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO).

Gove operations. Photo by Rio Tinto.

According to Yunupingu, over 50 years ago, mining companies arrived in the Gove peninsula without the permission of the landowners of the place and they took possession of whatever spaces they wanted to with the blessing of the federal government. In doing so, they damaged ancient Aboriginal sites and artifacts.

Back in 1963, Nabalco established a large-scale bauxite mine and refinery in the area, despite a legal fight – known as the Bark Petitions – put forward by the Yolngu before the Australian parliament. 

The new title claim would target royalties received from Nabalco from the launching of the Gove operations until 1971 and from 1971 onwards, when Rio Tinto took over the mine. 

The Gumatj, however, have received a fraction of the total revenue drawn from the site since 2011 when, together with the Rirratjingu and Galpu peoples, they signed the Gove Traditional Owners Agreement with Rio Tinto. The deal also contemplates the provision of employment, training and contracting business opportunities, and land and environmental management. It also promotes the protection of cultural and significant sites.

The lawsuit that relates to historical operations at Gove is expected to be based on the precedent set by the Timber Creek native title case back in March, which ruled on a $2.5 million compensation over a series of acts carried out between 1980 and 1996 by the Northern Territory government which were found to have “impaired or extinguished” native title rights and interests, including several actions that led to “cultural loss.”