The fracking battle arrives in the Red Centre

Published: 23 Nov 2015

From The Australian, Amos Aikman, 23 November 2015

The area between Indigenous people's rights to country and culture and mining companies' rights to what's under the ground is examined.

Anslem Impu Jnr is the future. At 24, he’s the youngest of nine siblings, one of whom has already died, and is the only member of his family holding a steady job.

As his father’s only son, he stands to inherit traditional ownership of a vast slice of country ­including Watarrka National Park and Kings Canyon, one of the Red Centre’s iconic tourism hotspots.

With demand for gas growing, exacerbated by Australia’s rising status as a liquefied natural gas superpower, exploration companies, wearied by pitched battles over fracking fought on the east coast, are increasingly looking north.

The planned North East Gas Interconnector pipeline will offer the Northern Territory’s potentially huge untapped gas reserves a route to market.

Sacred Watarrka, about 450km southwest of Alice Springs, is now in the industry’s sights. Like landowners in Queensland and NSW, who in some cases supported but in others brought the coal-seam gas ­industry to its knees, Mr Impu, or Junior as he prefers to be known, must balance obligations to protect country against those to ­deliver jobs, income and education for his people.

Whereas most non-indigenous Australians uncomfortable about fracking rigs in their backyards could sell up, Aboriginal custod­ianship confers responsibility to maintain land handed down through generations for physical, cultural and spiritual sustenance, theoretically for eternity. “It’s a lot of responsibility, a great weight on your shoulders,” Mr Impu says.

Australia’s northern face is ­already blotchy with exploration permits. Gas minnow Palatine Energy has applied to frack Wat­arrka, something traditional owners now bitterly oppose.

Due to peculiarities of tenure, Watarrka, with Kings Canyon as its centrepiece, remains crown land, which means Aboriginal elders cannot veto Palatine’s ­licence.

This week almost 30 of them will lodge an emergency heritage application, supported by the Environmental Defenders ­Office (NT), calling on federal ­Environment Minister Greg Hunt to stop exploration at Watarrka going ahead.

“That area has got a lot of dreamings. We don’t want that mining mob coming into that area,” says Hubert Pareroultja, Mr Impu’s uncle who, together with Mr Impu’s father, showed then opposition leaders Tony Abbott and Terry Mills round their country in 2010, deeply influencing both leaders’ views.

The application, obtained by The Australian, describes Watar­r­ka as, “a place of complex mythology and of ongoing ceremonial importance to Aboriginal people”, with crisscrossing dreaming tracks spanning the entire sacred area. “The applicants collectively are opposed to any form of mining or oil and gas development occurring within the park,” it states.

Several signatories approved extractive industry at the nearby Mereenie oil and gasfields and are royalty recipients, but say their support is qualified.

“Mining comes and goes but our culture, our land, stays with us and keeps us strong,” says Stephen Clyne, a traditional owner. “We’re just against mining in the park: happy to talk about it elsewhere.”

Herein lies a subtlety, seemingly insignificant to the Aborig­ines but apparent to David Falvey, managing director of Palatine, who says environmental and cultural issues could be managed and gas extraction would only take place “on the back of the range where no one would ever see it”. “In practical terms, access to Wat­arrka is controlled by — but the resource is not owned by — the Aborigines. It’s a crown ­resource that belongs to all the people of the Northern Territory, and I think it has to be viewed like that,” he says.

Given traditional owners live within the park’s boundaries, enduring­ connection to country does not appear in doubt. Aborig­inal traditional ownership involves­ the collective custody of parcels of land, with rights handed mainly down the patrilineal line. Traditional law is enforced by the Aboriginal Land Rights Act; were legal tenure different, such as Watarrka being Aboriginal freehold land, so would Mr Falvey’s argument be.

He says he would “not immediately roll over without ­debate” if faced with strong ­Aboriginal opposition. “Aboriginal people shouldn’t have less rights than we have, absolutely not; but they shouldn’t have more,” he says. “We’re supposed to be citizens, in equal­ity, of the same country. You and I don’t have those (traditional ownership) rights.”

Mr Impu works part time at the Mereenie gasfields, where he’s training to be a plant operator. He would like to see benefits from oil and gas extraction ­accrue, but says the industry must find its place. “The oil and gas industry will lose its social ­licence if it doesn’t respect the wishes of traditional owners. We should be able to say no.”

Extending a long period of dithering, the NT government announced another round of consultation over onshore gas industry regulation last week, conveniently timed to complete just after the next election. Ministers led by Chief Minister Adam Giles have made clear they want rapid expansi­on of extractive­ industries with min­imal regulatory burden.

Mr Impu describes the rage felt by traditional owners at being ignored or subverted around development of country for which they are culturally responsi­ble as like “someone coming into your home and spitting on your floor”.

Despite the right to education being enshrined in law, many local Aboriginal kids emerge from school unable to read, write or speak English at a functional level. “Most Aboriginal people don’t have proper educational skills to do these long-term jobs being created by things like oil and gas development,” Mr Impu says. “They might get a bit of ­labouring work during construction, but then that’s it … they want to speak up, but their ­English isn’t good enough.”

Mr Impu has his own ideas for development: a better school. “All we can do now is look to the younger generation. You can’t teach grown-ups all this stuff. Things have to change, but we’ll be here forever. This is home.”