Australia: Protecting the Kimberley: an interview with Gooniyandi and Jabirr Jabirr activitist Ebony Hill

Last Updated: 10 September 2019
Article by Paul Gregoire

In March 2015, 18,000 people across Australia turned out at protests against the forced closure of up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia, as the Barnett state government of the time had announced they were no longer economically viable.

The slated closures followed on from a federal government decision to cut the funding that covered the municipal and essential services to these communities, many of which are in the Kimberley region. However, some pointed to the move as being a blatant land grab by government.

Much of the development proposals contained in the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia – released by the Abbott government in July 2015 – would have been facilitated by these closures, which have never taken place in the systematic way proposed by former premier Colin Barnett.

And those in the Kimberley region are no strangers to preventing industry from riding roughshod over their interests. Widespread demonstrations against a proposed liquified natural gas (LNG) plant at Walmadan-James Price Point saw Woodside Petroleum and its partners pull out in 2013.

The push for industrialisation

These days, mining magnate Gina Rinehart has her eyes on the Kimberley's Raparapa-Fitzroy River. She plans to invest $285 million to divert water from it to irrigate her cattle stations. Although, given the river is the region's main water source, local First Nations communities are opposed.

Another project that's drawn the ire of locals, is the sealing of the notorious Cape Leveque Road that leads out to the Dampier Peninsula, so it can be turned into a tollway. The concerns surrounding this are that it could turn the pristine Aboriginal communities on the other side into tourist traps.

Further encroachments upon the Kimberley environment have resulted from the McGowan government's partial lifting of a statewide fracking ban, with WA's northernmost region set to bear the brunt of this development.

And then there's the controversy over Shanghai Zenith. The Chinese company was issued with a stop work notice in June over the illegal clearing of land at the Kimberley's Yakka Munga station. The notice was issued following a blockade by traditional custodians the Nyikina Mangala people.

The fragile environment

The Kimberley was struck by the largest recorded earthquake in Australia on 14 July, when a 6.6 magnitude undersea quake struck off the coast of Broome. And since that time, the region has suffered through over 70 aftershocks.

Gooniyandi and Jabirr Jabirr woman Ebony Hill explained that the first earthquake ever to have hit the local region has resulted in a rising environmental awareness amongst young locals, who have since become vocally opposed to fracking.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Ms Hill, a masters student with a focus on Indigenous intellectual property, about those communities that were once earmarked for closure, what the damming of the Fitzroy would mean for locals, and the widespread anti-fracking sentiment in the Kimberley.

Firstly, back in early 2015, there was a huge grassroots campaign to prevent the proposed closure of up to 150 remote Aboriginal communities in Western Australia.

The Barnett government announced the move in November 2014, claiming the communities weren't viable, as the federal government funding for essential services was to be cut. Ms Hill, what's happened to those communities since then?

In 2015, we had a Kimberley Aboriginal advisory council created that was consulting with the state government. They were meant to be an advisory council that would feedback information to us. And that came to an end very quickly.

From the time of the last lot of community closure rallies, it's gone really quiet, because the decisions and negotiations have all gone behind closed doors.

We're seeing a new branding. It's no longer the WA forced community closures. It's still the development that was wanted, but they're rebranding the process.

We knew exactly where they wanted to develop. Most of the places that now have an issue are communities that had mining tenant leases over them, or some sort of resource that they're now looking to siphon off.

So, from those days, Gina Rinehart started to purchase – and look into purchasing – around the Fitzroy Valley. The first cattle station she got was Liveringa Station. So, from back then, we were already looking at this monopolisation, where Rinehart's been trying to access the aquifer.

Back then, we had a Kimberley-wide moratorium, as Aboriginal people, against fracking. I was there. All of the law bosses from the Kimberley were there. The tribes of the Kimberley unified and said that we were anti-fracking.

We share one water: one aquifer. And it is a cultural responsibility for neighbouring tribes that each of our tribes refrain from fracking, because we are going to share one water and one legacy.

So, the remote communities are still under threat?

The forced closures have been repackaged. At the Kimberley Futures Forum, we had the minister for children, the education minister and the minister for housing. And they were already trying to repackage the community closures from there.

How have they been repackaged?

The actual forced community closures haven't been a priority. They've cut services so badly that we have had an exodus of human traffic out of the squeezing of those communities.

In the Fitzroy Valley, the Water Corporation hasn't been up there in years. They're continuously trying to get clean water, or sewage problems dealt with.

In Broome, right now, we've got a diverse look, because of the homelessness from the remote communities of people who have left due to services being cut, along with access to alcohol, because of restrictions.

So, it's quite sad. You're seeing this overcrowding. You are seeing a different face of homelessness in Broome.

As you've mentioned, Gina Rinehart is pushing a proposal to extract water from the Fitzroy River. This will affect the lands of the Gooniyandi and Bunuba peoples. What are your concerns about the impact of this project?

Dr Anne Poelina is an Aboriginal environmental scientist. She's been looking at the water sovereignty of Gooniyandi and Bunuba peoples to the Fitzroy Valley, as a living cultural landscape.

They've been looking at the legal personality of water. And whether water can have cultural rights for us as Indigenous people.

According to the Northern White Paper, the Kimberley is going to be the new food bowl for the country. So, they're pushing agriculture-Big Farm up here. Pastoralism in the East Kimberley has always been the main industry. But, they're really pushing for those lands to be used as our new food bowl.

So, the Ord Valley has got a big irrigation and damming project. And since the 80s, they've been talking about damming the Fitzroy. But, it's really coming to fruition now because of Gina's involvement. And we've got threats from Twiggy Forrest to purchase Woodside Petroleum shares for James Price Point.

And just in regard to human rights, we are dealing with mining moguls with absolutely no humanitarian bone in them.

Our fight changes when we deal with another company. We learnt that with James Point when we got a new corporate conglomerate with a whole different lot of negotiations.

First, we had a western conglomerate. Then we had Chinese, Japanese and Korean investors. And there's a very different way of negotiating with them culturally. And now we've got Gina Rinehart, so it's a really different fight.

Rinehart claims that the water in the Fitzroy River is just gushing into the ocean and therefore, is going to waste. What would you say to that?

That's not true. I would direct her to the studies of Dr Anne Poelina and Environs Kimberley. They've been looking at the water safety issues, as well as water security and water sovereignty.

The Fitzroy River is an essential lifeblood, not only culturally to that area, but it's our food and water source. It is the lifeblood to our whole cultural block.

Back in 2013, there were protests against the establishment of a huge liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant that was proposed on a sacred site at James Price Point on the Dampier Peninsula. Those protests were ultimately successful in blocking the proposal.

Protests are once again taking place on the Dampier Peninsula. This time it's to do with a paved road. What's that all about? And what are the likely impacts?

The Beagle Bay Road is finally being completely sealed. That's a road that's famous for how treacherous it is. So, in terms of non-local access, it's quite restrictive for tourists.

And that area is still very culturally active in terms of the traditional sense. So, One Arm Point will close down for half the year, while they're doing their lore ceremonies.

The locals have control over whether they give permission or refuse access, because the community is closed. And they're worried that they're not going to be able to do that anymore.

It's totally Aboriginal-owned land. But, now they're looking at it being co-managed. And the main thing is about water access and where their control starts. Because they want to be able to exclude people from certain places along the coastline.

These are issues of access and control for traditional owners. And it revisits how weak our native title rights are. Arnhem Land people have land rights. This is the Kimberley and we are still dealing with the weakest version of property rights there is.

So, how will control and access look going forth? This is what everybody is fighting about.

You've mentioned fracking. The WA government part lifted its ban on fracking at the end of last year. What's been happening with fracking in the region since the ban was lifted?

Well, they've come through. And they've been doing illegal activities, as has been seen with Shanghai Zenith. There has been illegal activity by Broome Energy, which is fracking in Broome. There are whispers as to the first uranium poisoning of our native animals, such as our dingos.

The Kimberley has one water basin: one aquifer, one shared water. And we had a Kimberley-wide moratorium as a conglomeration of Aboriginal nations of the Kimberley and we all came together and said no.

It was a Kimberley-wide moratorium and the government – in a move that shows it doesn't recognise our sovereignty – went and pushed for fracking to go ahead.

There's a lot of anti-fracking sentiment in our towns since our earthquakes. We've been going through around 70 aftershocks. We had our last 5.5 on the Richter about a week ago.

And the penny dropped for locals with the earthquakes, as tangible proof of fracking outcomes. Local young Aboriginal people have become really anti-fracking all of a sudden, because a natural disaster was enough to make them think about it.

We don't usually get seismic activity here. We've never had a registered earthquake in the past. That was the first Broome earthquake in history, and we haven't stopped having them since. And the Kimberley mob have become anti-fracking.

Our whole lives and culture are about set signs and cycles, and knowing what comes in seasonally, and now it's all out of whack. And people have just seen climate change, and they got it.

The White Paper on Developing Northern Australia was a report released at the height of the public protests against forced closures. It sets out policy proposals for the region.

And as you point out, it contains many of the developments we've been discussing. Broadly speaking, what has the government set out in this document?

That year when they went to the federal budget, they discussed their plans for the north. They want to create ports, railroads, and the general infrastructure to make this the food bowl.

They're also talking about making Broome the super-city of the north. From James Price Point, with the initial negotiations with Woodside, there were already whispers that once the LNG precinct was established on the peninsula that region would keep on getting developed all the way up.

Having seen some of the exploration leases and the applications, they're going to keep developing Broome and the Peninsula.

As I said, 12 years ago we had western conglomerates: BP, Chevron and Shell. But, when we moved to the Asian conglomerates the negotiations and cultural changes began.

And it can change in our benefit as Indigenous people, which happened with the Japanese. They didn't find it was best practice. And they didn't want to be involved with Indigenous rights violations.

But, in dealing with Chinese conglomerates, they have no human rights considerations. I know what they do to their Indigenous populations, so it is really scary with those companies.

Where we are with Woodside Petroleum is our $30 million is about to be released by the state government for illegal activities back then. It's pretty interesting that just as we are around 60 cents down on the dollar, we are getting a $30 million package from 13 years ago.

And lastly, Ms Hill, despite the push back against remote community closures and industrial development in the area, the government and industry are pushing ahead with plans that seem to go back well beyond the announcement that the federal government would cut funding.

How do you see this developing from here? And will there be an escalation in First Nations actions against the ongoing push to develop the region?

There absolutely will be. I'm interested to see how this next version is going to develop, as we are going to have to rebrand again too.

I tried to make sure that "Stop the Forced Closures of Communities in WA" wasn't hijacked nationally, because I really don't believe in pan-Aboriginality.

Our cause was hijacked and melded into land and justice issues in general, when these are quite specific and very pressing issues. We are talking about the world's largest LNG precinct and the world's largest untouched oil and gas reserves.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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