Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group is withholding royalties to a Pilbara Indigenous group until it signs off on mining leases, a parliamentary inquiry has been told.
The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) says the stand-off reflects the significant power imbalance between miners and traditional owners.
It says the mining giants that operate in the Pilbara have only been motivated to revisit land use agreements because of the media scrutiny stemming from Rio Tinto’s destruction of the ancient Juukan Gorge site earlier this year.
WGAC director Joselyn Hicks told the Northern Australia Committee that FMG has withheld $1.9 million in royalty payments since February because traditional owners have sought more information about their mining lease plans.
“These mining leases contain numerous sacred sites,” she told the inquiry on Tuesday.
“We have asked FMG to reconsider their decision and they have advised us they will only pay the royalties when we sign off the mining leases.
“We know that if FMG is granted their mining leases then we have no power to stop them destroying our sites and causing damage to the places we care about.”
In a statement, chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said Fortescue was “committed to open and transparent engagement to facilitate the outstanding royalty payment”.
The WA government had agreed in June at the request of FMG and WGAC to pause consideration of heritage approvals for its proposed Queens Valley mining area.
“Since that time Fortescue has met with Wintawari on six occasions and worked to avoid and protect areas that were identified by Wintawari as being of high cultural significance,” Ms Gaines said.
“Last week that approval process recommenced, following the satisfactory conclusion of these discussions.”
Ms Hicks said both FMG and Rio had made decisions not to proceed with disrupting Eastern Gurruma sites following the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters on Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) country.
“We welcome these decisions but it is sad that it has to take the destruction of the PKKP’s site and international media to make the companies and state government pause for thought,” she said.
Hundreds of other sites remained at risk, she added.
Devastated PKKP representatives gave evidence on Monday, saying Rio Tinto “didn’t want to know” about the importance of the Juukan Gorge site which it blew up in May to extract $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore.
Rio had approval under WA’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act to destroy the site but failed to act on expert reports noting it was among the most significant in Australia.
PKKP only learned the rock shelters would be destroyed nine days prior to the blast.
Rio, which is reviewing participation agreements struck with Pilbara traditional owners, said it was determined to prevent a repeat of the incident.
The two parties have agreed to a moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area until at least January 2021.
FMG has applied to convert prospecting licences near Juukan Gorge to mining leases but says there are no current plans to mine the area.