It’s been a busy week in Borroloola and there’s little chance things’ll slow down soon.

The week started brilliantly as legal action by the Kurdanji people against the Xstrata mining company successfully put a stop to their plan to expand a current underground zinc mine into an ‘open cut’ operation. Such an expansion would have required the diversion of five and a half kilometres of the McArthur River.

The jubilation of the traditional owners was echoed by the Northern Land Council, who rightly point out that “you simply can’t trample over the rights of traditional Aboriginal people”. But Xstrata, who had previously promised to leave the territory if this court case didn’t go their way¹, said they were disappointed and would ‘consider the judgement carefully’. Translation: ‘find a loophole’.

Tuesday was pretty quiet.

Today though, was a serious blow for the Kurdanji people, as Clare Martin, Chief Minister of the territory, made it clear that they would effectively ignore Monday’s decision. It seems Xstrata didn’t have to do much searching to find that loophole; the government will just make one:

Ms Martin says the Government will change the original legislation² that governs the mine to allow it to have an open-cut operation.

This is despite the fact that it was the NT government’s fault for giving Xstrata the go-ahead for the expansion when the original agreement never said anything except ‘underground’ – it was never put to the traditional owners that this mine would eventually become an open pit on their land.

That’s where the title of this post comes in. The Northern Territory Minister for Mines, Chris Natt, was downplaying the legal battle today with this:

It’s just one small word – the word ‘underground’ has provided a situation where we’ve got to amend the situation.

The Kurdanji people are suitably pissed off about this, not only because they weren’t told, but also because Xstrata and the NT government are disregarding entirely some of their most sacred sites, the Rainbow Serpent dreaming, some of which will be disturbed by the diversion of the McArthur. But in spite of this, Clare Martin maintains that “we’re doing this with the greatest respect for everyone involved.”

What a sad day for the rights of indigenous people in this country.


¹Never trust a mining company to keep a promise.

²Emphasis added.