On 22 February 1968, the Commonwealth Government authorised the mining company Nabalco Pty Ltd to construct and operate a bauxite mine on the Gove Peninsula.
Over the next few years the mine, an alumina refinery, a waste dump, and port and other infrastructure were constructed on the Gove Peninsula. The land actually mined is all either Gumatj or Rirratjingu traditional country. The mining operation came despite strong protests from traditional owners.
Once mining started, the mining company paid royalties to the Government, and some of the royalties were passed to the Northern Land Council (NLC) for distribution among traditional owners.
Rirratjingu Aboriginal Corporation was established in 1984 to manage royalties paid to Rirratjingu traditional owners. After distributing the royalties in various different ways, in the 1990s the NLC decided to divide them in accordance with how the bauxite mine, Nhulunbuy town and other mine-related facilities affected the traditional lands of the Rirratjingu, Gumatj and other groups. At that time, the NLC allocated to the Gumatj more than three times the royalties distributed to the Rirratjingu. The Rirratjingu disagreed with this allocation, asserting the NLC had misclassified Rirratjingu land as Gumatj, and that bauxite mining affected as much Rirratjingu traditional land as it affected Gumatj land. For many years Rirratjingu called on the NLC to allocate funds so that Gumatj and Rirratjingu would receive roughly equal shares.
But the royalty payments were relatively low then. The Rirratjingu did not take active or expensive steps regarding the difference.
In 2011, Rio Tinto (which had taken over operation of the mine from Nabalco Pty Ltd) commenced negotiating with the NLC and the Gumatj, Rirratjingu and Galpu traditional owner groups to enter into a new agreement to continue mining operations on the Gove Peninsula. This brought the likelihood of significantly higher payments.
The Rirratjingu welcomed negotiations with Rio Tinto, but told the NLC’s negotiators that the Rirratjingu would not consent to the agreement unless future payments from the mine were distributed evenly between the Rirratjingu and the Gumatj, to reflect their traditional land ownership, while allowing a percentage for the Galpu traditional owners of a small affected area. The Rirratjingu cooperated in negotiating the new RTA Gove Traditional Owners Agreement on the understanding that the NLC would split future royalties and compensation payments from the mine in this way.
The agreement was negotiated on the basis that the Gumatj, Rirratjingu and Galpu traditional owner groups would become distinct and separate parties to it. Rio Tinto offered to pay for separate legal advice for each of these groups. The NLC discouraged this, answering that the NLC was supplying sufficient advice.
At the end of negotiations, a NLC lawyer asked Rirratjingu leader Bakamumu Marika to sign the agreement on behalf of the Rirratjingu, without giving him the opportunity to read it or to take independent advice, and without providing a copy of it at the time.
After the agreement was signed, the Rirratjingu learned that the agreement did not contain a commitment to an equal share of payments. The Rirratjingu agitated strongly with the NLC and the then Minister for Indigenous Affairs for roughly equal payments to the Gumatj and the Rirratjingu. Despite these attempts, the NLC continues to distribute the compensation payments unequally between them.
Since then the Rirratjingu have committed considerable time and resources to obtaining a thorough, unbiassed and fair review of which land is Rirratjingu traditional country. Additionally, the Rirratjingu brought two separate legal actions, seeking an independent review of the NLC's administrative decision-making about Rirratjingu land, and regarding the behaviour of the NLC and its agents during the negotiation of the agreement.
In October 2018, the NLC and Rirratjingu, Gumatj and Galpu traditional owners agreed to resolve this dispute finally, by appointing the former Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, Mr Robert French, to conduct a commercial arbitration to determine which land is Rirratjingu, Gumatj and Galpu traditional country.
The main Rirratjingu concern has consistently been for accurate recognition of their traditional land. The commercial arbitration will address this concern by the end of 2020 in an orderly and fair way. This is the first time that land ownership will be independently assessed by someone other than the NLC.
Meanwhile, the Rirratjingu group of companies aim to work with all organisations and people on the Gove Peninsula to build a prosperous future together.