SOME of the world’s biggest coal companies will be forced to negotiate with the Wonnarua people over future Hunter mine projects after the National Native Title Tribunal confirmed the group ‘‘speaks for country’’.
The tribunal on Friday registered the Wonnarua people as native title claimants over 10,000 square kilometres of the Hunter, stretching from Maitland in the east to west of Muswellbrook, and from south of Cessnock to the Barrington Tops and north of Scone.
The decision was handed down on the same day the Newcastle Herald revealed the Awabakal Aboriginal Land Council had lodged a land claim over the entrance to Newcastle’s harbour that, if successful, could see indigenous communities receive a share of coal royalties.
The native title tribunal’s decision marked the end of an expensive and lengthy campaign by the Wonnarua group to establish its right to
negotiate with mine companies in the Hunter. The decision means the group must be notified about all proposals, and not just mining projects, relating to applications over Crown land in the registered area.
The tribunal accepted that applicants Scott Franks and Robert Lester, on behalf of the Wonnarua People, were direct descendants of two Aboriginal women born at Singleton and Broke in 1800 and 1840, and the women’s descendants had maintained direct and significant connections with the region since before white settlement to the present day.
The decision ‘‘fixed a wrong’’, said Mr Franks, who has spent more than a decade arguing that mine companies have ignored the Wonnaruas’ legitimate claims to speak for their country, and paid ‘‘blow-ins’’ to sign off on mine activities that had destroyed Aboriginal cultural heritage.
‘‘We’re in a position now to say to mines, we don’t support what you’re proposing because our heritage is not for sale,’’ Mr Franks said.
‘‘All these mining companies we’ve pleaded with for years about protecting the very small percentage of our heritage that’s left are going to have to rethink how they consider these issues. The Hunter Valley is not there just for industry to tear up and walk away from.’’
Mr Franks said the Wonnarua people were not against mining and the jobs it provided in the Hunter, but the decision returned power to a group that could trace its links in the region to a time before white people.
‘‘This battle for registration has always been about protecting the region. Now the mines have to approach us and try to negotiate a way forward,’’ he said.
NSW Greens heritage spokesman David Shoebridge said the decision was a ‘‘terrific outcome’’.
‘‘The Wonnarua people have a strong track record of speaking up to protect Aboriginal culture and heritage, and this gives them a sure legal footing to continue that work,’’ Mr Shoebridge said.
‘‘Too often Aboriginal heritage is simply priced and destroyed in the Hunter. With so much already having been lost, this can be the first step towards real protection for this priceless culture and history.
“The claim runs over much of the Hunter’s coal belt and I can only hope that future generations will see this as a turning point where thousands of years of historical connections are put ahead of a few decades of dirty coal profits.”
A NSW Minerals Council spokesman said it would look at the decision before making a response.