A private tennis court, pool and more than 200 homes in a fenced-off complex have been approved to be built on a site local Ngambri people say was used for sacred men’s business.
- A claimed men’s business site near Mount Ainslie is about to be cleared for a residential development
- Developers and the ACT Government were aware as early as 2013 that the site’s rocky outcrops were potentially significant to local Aboriginal people
- Neither the developers nor the Government ever consulted Aboriginal elders or groups about the site
The rolling hills at the foot of Mount Ainslie in Canberra are sprinkled with jagged, 400 million-year-old volcanic rock that Ngambri man Shane Mortimer says was once used to make tools to climb trees, cut food or clean skins.
Mr Mortimer, who can trace his Aboriginal ancestry to the woman who first led English settler James Ainslie to the same land almost 200 years ago, said it was an “extremely important” spiritual place used by men.
“It was like a supermarket, really, it had everything. All the organic produce you could ever want was right here on the grasslands,” Mr Mortimer said.
Mr Mortimer pointed to marker stones — rocks with directional lines carved into them — as existing evidence of the land’s earlier history.
A 1933 find in the foothills by local artefact collector Will Kinsela is still held in The British Museum.
At the time, Mr Kinsela wrote: “Among the hills near Mount Ainslie, at Canberra, the writer collected a few, and very few, flaked implements, showing careful workmanship of secondary finish … but they needed tedious searching to locate.”
And reports by archaeologists at the Geological Society of Australia and Geoheritage Australasia, commissioned by Mr Mortimer, support his claim the land holds Indigenous significance, with Murdoch University geoheritage Professor Vic Semeniuk writing in one: “the natural outcrop of the Ainslie Volcanics … represents a spiritual or sacred site to the traditional owners of this region.”
But the Commonwealth has determined the site holds no Indigenous heritage, and has approved plans by developer Doma Group for a residential complex that would clear the land, including its rocky outcroppings.
Mr Mortimer likened the impending development to the “vandalism” of the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia by Rio Tinto.
“That’s what it means to me. You can’t just do that to another person.
“There’s a lot more to these rocks than meets the eye, I can tell you.”
Indigenous heritage ignored in reports by developers and government
Doma Group is awaiting final approval to begin construction on more than a dozen buildings that would make up its Foothills complex.
The development has arrived at that stage without any investigation of the site’s potential Indigenous heritage since its sale by the Commonwealth in 2002.
Extensive work was done to assess the heritage of the former CSIRO headquarters at the site, which was demolished two years ago.
But no local elder or registered Aboriginal organisation has ever been consulted over the site by government or developers.
Professor of Building and Construction Management at the University of Canberra, Shane West, said they had not done their due diligence.
“There has been 60 areas of concern that have been put forward with this development — not one of them has been accepted,” Professor West said.
“The process of getting through to today is, I would consider, [a] very unfortunate part of history that we need to now revisit.”
A series of reports commissioned by the previous owners, Abacus, and later Doma Group, did not examine the site for Indigenous heritage, despite ACT Environment Directorate advice in 2013.
“It is likely the boulders will have natural heritage values and they must be assessed for Aboriginal Heritage values, specifically, evidence for the procurement of stone material suitable for the manufacture of Aboriginal Lithic tools,” the directorate advised in a letter to planners.
That assessment was not done.
In the heritage assessment Doma commissioned in 2016, consultancy firm GML Heritage wrote it did not research the site’s Indigenous heritage values, as it was not included in the brief.
Doma Group has not responded to the ABC’s requests for comment.
The federal Environment Department ultimately approved the development in 2018, with conditions to offset the habitat destruction the development would cause.
A spokesman for the department said it did not assess the site for its Indigenous heritage.
“The project was not assessed under the heritage provisions of the EPBC Act as no world or national heritage sites were identified on the location,” the spokesman said.
A final works approval now rests with the National Capital Authority (NCA), the body that manages the Commonwealth’s interests in Canberra.
It has already agreed to allow the rocky outcroppings to be cleared, and has determined the site does not hold Aboriginal heritage significance, because no native title claim has been made.
No native title claim has ever been successfully mounted in the ACT, due to the paucity of historical records making it difficult to determine native title rights.
The NCA said it was guided by the findings of the federal Environment Department.
ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury, who is also a cabinet member of the ACT Government, said the development needed to be paused until its Indigenous heritage values had been properly assessed.
“Frankly I’m shocked that these assessments have not been done properly prior to this point, it is a prominent site,” Mr Rattenbury said.
Development will also impact endangered species, Burley Griffin remnants
Mr Mortimer and Mr West also hold concerns for the land’s natural and European heritage values.
The Doma development will damage the habitat of three critically endangered and several more vulnerable plant and animal species.
In approving the development, the Environment Department said Doma must forfeit a number of environmental credits as compensation, as well as contribute $100,000 to a golden sun moth research project.
Doma also agreed to establish a photo archive of the old CSIRO headquarters, to address the loss of heritage associated with its demolition.
The site also contains markers from some of the original survey work done by Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion when they first planned the national capital, which would be cleared by the development.
Mr Mortimer said the intertwining ancient and contemporary histories made the site a perfect candidate as a place of reconciliation that could be used for educational purposes.
He said that would better serve the community.
“Anglo-colonials have done this from the minute they set foot on the ground here. It has to stop, it has to come to an end at some point.”