Andrew Forrest’s FMG keeping $1.9m in royalties from Indigenous owners, Juukan Gorge inquiry told


Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) is withholding $1.9 million in royalties from a group of Pilbara traditional owners because they asked for more information about a mining proposal, a Federal inquiry has heard.

The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC), representing the Eastern Guruma people, has accused FMG of deliberately withholding information about its plans and only complying with the agreement “when it suits them”.

The corporation is among a number of Aboriginal organisations that have given evidence before a parliamentary committee investigating Rio Tinto’s destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.

The Eastern Guruma’s country covers 6,500 square kilometres of land and is next to Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura (PKKP) country as well as Rio Tinto’s Brockman 4 mine, which sparked the inquiry.

WGAC director Joselyn Hicks told the hearing Eastern Guruma country is one of the most heavily explored locations in Australia, and that 93 per cent of the land is covered by mining tenements.

Eastern Guruma woman Joselyn Hicks told the hearing miners had shown the traditional owners “little respect”.(ABC Pilbara: Karen Michelmore)

Relationship ‘one-sided’

The group has agreements with Rio Tinto and FMG, but Ms Hicks and other representatives described the relationship as one-sided, saying “little respect” was shown by the miners.

WGAC has issued a number of dispute notices accusing FMG of non-compliance, including claims of unauthorised impacts to its sites.

“FMG routinely withholds information from the corporation, contrary to the terms of our agreement,” Ms Hicks said.

“The impact of this is that we are unable to participate in government decision-making processes, such as programs of works applications to the Department of Mines.

“FMG has been withholding our royalty payments, amounting to $1.9 million, since February 2020, because we have simply asked for information about their plans for some mining leases they have applied for.

“We have asked FMG to reconsider their position and they have advised us that they will only pay the royalties when we sign off on the mining lease.

“We know that when FMG is granted their mining leases, then we have no power to stop them destroying our sites and causing damage to places we care about.”

A river banked with green grass and native trees stretching up towards a blue, slightly cloudy sky.
Eastern Guruma country, in the east Pilbara, has been heavily impacted by mining activity, the traditional owners say.(Supplied: Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation)

‘Commitment to transparency’

WGAC director Tony Bevan said the royalties related to existing agreements on Eastern Guruma land.

“FMG are currently doing what they like on Eastern Guruma country and paying nothing for it,” he said.

He said WGAC had started issuing “dispute notices” to FMG when they breached their agreement, and had sent six notices over the space of a year.

But the because the notices carried no penalty or meaningful impact the group had stopped sending them.

“The dispute notices go nowhere,” he said.

FMG chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said the company took its relationship with traditional owners seriously.

“We are committed to open and transparent engagement to facilitate the outstanding royalty payment, in accordance with the contractual agreement and the obligations of both parties,” she said in a statement.

Access denied

At least 434 heritage sites on Eastern Guruma country had been destroyed by mining activity, while a further 285 were in “very close proximity” to current operations and were inaccessible to traditional owners, Ms Hicks said.

“Access to our traditional lands has diminished to the point that it is impossible to visit many of our important places and look after country,” she told the hearing.

“We have to ask, sometimes implore FMG and Rio not to destroy our sacred places.

“The Government always supports them.”

Rio Tinto operates six mines and three rail lines and FMG owns the Solomon mine and is building 90km of its Eliwana railway across the country.

Both companies are planning further mine expansions.

Red, rocky hills in the Australian desert.
WGAC says FMG avoided this 23,000-year-old site at Spear Hill, but that it is sandwiched between a new rail access road and the Eliwana railway.(Supplied: Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation)

Second-hand cars for native land

Ms Hicks told the hearing Rio Tinto pays compensation on only three of its mines.

When the first commercial arrangement was struck in 2001, the Eastern Guruma people gave up most of their rights for $7m in benefits, including two houses in Karratha, two second-hand Toyota LandCruisers and $300,000 per year in compensation.

The deal was revisited in 2007, when WGAC agreed to give up all of its rights to claim compensation on the existing three mines in return for compensation on the Nammuldi mine, which started operating in 2006.

“We now know that this was a decision that benefitted Rio far more than us,” Ms Hicks said.

Native title ‘effectively taken away’

WGAC believes Rio Tinto mines 90m tonnes of iron ore from its lands each year, which would be worth about $10 billion a year at current iron ore prices.

“People say, ‘Why did the corporation sign these one-sided agreements with FMG and Rio?'” Ms Hicks said.

“The answer is, we do not have the power or resources of FMG or Rio Tinto.

“When we see what we have given away to FMG and Rio, we feel like we have been taken advantage of.

“Our elders and old people fought hard for our native title — we thought it would enable us to protect our country and our sites.

“These agreements have effectively taken away our native title.”



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