Andrew Forrest urged to abandon Pilbara native title legal battle
Summary: Mining magnate Andrew Forrest has been urged by native title holders to abandon plans to fight their newly-awarded exclusive rights over land that encompasses one of his billion-dollar iron ore mines.....
On Monday, around 300 Yindjibarndi traditional owners and supporters gathered at the Millstream National Park in WA's remote Pilbara region where Federal Court Justice Stephen Rares formally handed the group exclusive native title rights.
"The Yindjibarndi people not only possess today, but also have continuously possessed — since before the British Crown claimed sovereignty over Australia — specific native title rights and interests in the claimed area that have not been wholly or partially extinguished," Justice Rares said.
The decision opens the legal doors for the Yindjibarndi people to seek compensation from Andrew Forrest's company Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) for the use of their land.
Mr Forrest has previously described an uncapped compensation deal with the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation as "mining welfare".
FMG is now considering its options, including appealing the native title ruling — a move opposed by WA Treasurer and Indigenous Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt.
"I'd be disappointed of course if FMG feel as though they need to appeal this decision," Mr Wyatt said.
"Hopefully there can be a dialogue entered into between all Yindjibarndi people, FMG, and perhaps facilitated by the State to resolve all outstanding issues that have developed over the last better part of a decade."
In a statement, FMG chief executive Nev Power said the company's concerns stem from the power of exclusive native title rights, which require a higher standard of engagement with traditional owner groups.
"The Federal Court decision relating to the concept of exclusive possession has potentially wide-ranging implications for new investment in resources, agriculture and tourism," Mr Power said.
Yindjibarndi people ready to sue
Yindjibarndi leader Michael Woodley says if FMG would not negotiate over compensation, the corporation would use its newly conferred rights to sue.
"If we don't get any meaningful outcome from FMG from going back to the table then we have no other option but to use our legal path," Mr Woodley said.
Yindjibarndi's senior native title lawyer Vance Hughston said compensation will be paid one way or another.
"Every miner in the Pilbara has reached agreements of those kinds with the Aboriginal people, except FMG," Mr Hughston said.
"Their mine is a valid mine, but there's never been agreement reached on the compensation or the terms of the mining and that day of reckoning will come."
Monday's ceremony marked the end of a 14-year battle for the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and emotions ran high as Chair Lyn Cheedy paid tribute to the work of elders who had passed away over that time.
"This was an important fight for Yindjibarndi people … and it has been a hard fight," Ms Cheedy said.
"For all the elders, we wouldn't have had anything, you fellas carried us forward. Thank you for that."
Elder Pansy Sambo said she hoped the legal battle won by the Yindjibarndi people would help lead the way for other Indigenous communities fighting for native title.
"This chapter has opened up [for] so many to see that when your spirit is connected to ngurra [country] you have a will to fight, and fight we did," Ms Sambo said.
"We will hopefully become a case study for the benefit of all language groups, we set the precedent … and we have done that today."