Inside Story

A miner meets its match

How Fortescue Metals Group was bested by a tenacious campaign in the Pilbara

Andrew Dodd Books 12 October 2021 1932 words

The victor: Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation head Michael Woodley, shown here at the Ganalili Centre at Roebourne, southeast of Port Hedland, in September 2019. Kathryn Bermingham/AAP Image

Title Fight: How the Yindjibarndi Battled and Defeated a Mining Giant
By Paul Cleary | Black Inc. | $32.99 | 320 pages

Last month I was walking through spinifex and rocks in Kija country in the Kimberley. I was alone and had strayed well away from the track to head for a distant landmark when I noticed the distinctive shape of a stone tool lying on the ground. It was wider than an arrowhead but when I picked it up it fitted neatly in my palm. Its edges had been worn down by scraping and were still quite sharp. It was a moment to savour, and for imagining. Who had last held this beautiful tool? How had it been used? It was also a moment for good behaviour, not for greedy souveniring. I recorded the latitude and longitude, photographed it, placed it back on the ground and walked away.

That’s just common decency, right? It’s a recognition that objects are part of the story of the land. And in any case, we know it is what traditional owners ask us to do.

I’ve been thinking about this encounter while reading Paul Cleary’s important and gutsy book Title Fight, which reveals the ways the mining company Fortescue Metals Group, or FMG, sometimes behaves in the presence of Indigenous people and how it treats their precious objects and land. And decency is not a word that comes to mind. In this often-distressing saga, Cleary opts for other words to describe FMG’s dealings with Indigenous people, especially the Yindjibarndi of the Pilbara — words like manipulative, aggressive and unconscionable, which he carefully justifies.

Under chairman Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, FMG has become the world’s fourth-largest iron ore producer by grabbing tens of thousands of square kilometres of mining tenements across the Pilbara. In some of these, the company’s strategy is to scrape low-quality ore from a large surface area rather than dig deep into rich deposits, meaning it can have a huge impact on the landscape and the heritage it contains. Forget small stone tools, we’re talking about shelters, ochre quarries, places of Dreamtime stories with evidence of thousands of years of human habitation.

We all know this happens, and particularly in the Pilbara, because Rio Tinto demonstrated it last year by obliterating the globally significant Juukan Gorge with its 46,000-year evidence of human occupation. What Title Fight makes clear is that FMG is also guilty of cowboy behaviour, perhaps on an industrial scale, despite its carefully crafted public image as a company that cares about Indigenous employment.

FMG’s aim was to be the world’s lowest-cost iron ore producer, and because it arrived on the scene relatively late and wanted to cash in on the great iron ore boom, it worked at a super-fast pace to broker deals, get approvals, build railway lines, and get ships loaded and despatched to markets in China. The company appeared to operate with a sense of entitlement, which may explain the manipulation and corporate bullying of traditional owners, who struggled with weak laws and inadequate resources to protect their land and rights.

But FMG met its match in the CEO of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, or YAC, Michael Woodley, who emerges in Title Fight as knowledgeable and magnanimous — a natural leader of the Yindjibarndi communities spread across the Western Pilbara. Woodley is recognised as a tharnga, or spokesperson for the land, representing a place called Garliwinjinha where FMG was developing its Solomon mine. He was schooled in the local Birdarra law and ceremonies and the stories of the Marrga spirits, whom the Yindjibarndi believe were sent by the God-being Minkala to create the Pilbara. But none of this stopped FMG trying to silence him to further its own interests.

Together with the neighbouring Ngarluma people, the Yindjibarndi won non-exclusive native title over a large area of the Western Pilbara in 2003. But the miners were still able to keep amassing tenements and mining licences. The Aboriginal communities then made an additional native title claim on country to the southeast. They did so because another tribal group, the Banjima, agreed that Yindjibarndi territory was much larger than the first claim suggested. The stakes were high: the claim covered the site of the Solomon mine, and if the Yindjibarndi won native title then FMG would be subject to a huge compensation bill.

Cleary demonstrates how FMG developed a playbook for dealing with difficult communities based on its treatment of the Nyiyaparli people of the Chichester Range 250 kilometres southeast of Port Hedland. The Nyiyaparli were also pursuing their native title rights and had passed the important registration milestone, meaning they had a strong negotiating position. Cleary says FMG “set about trying to exploit — or, indeed, foment — divisions in the community.” It seized a moment when they were disorganised to broker a land access agreement with some of the Nyiyaparli elders directly. They were flown to Perth, without legal representation, where they were handed a new agreement that “removed significant cultural heritage and environmental provisions” that had already been settled with the wider community.

Cleary describes the payment they were offered to turn their traditional lands into a quarry — unindexed royalties of 2.5 cents a tonne, with two Toyota Landcruisers “to sweeten the deal” — as “astonishingly small.” At the time, the more established mining companies were offering traditional owners around 50 cents a tonne, which would rise to $1 a tonne at peak times. The elders signed, and FMG celebrated on its website. But a day later, the elders said they’d been duped because they didn’t fully understand what they were signing and had felt pressured. The deal was eventually scrapped; but rather than vow not to do it again, FMG got busy refining its tactics.

The divide-and-conquer strategy has been at the centre of FMG’s dealings with the Yindjibarndi. Title Fight documents the process that led to the creation of the rival Wirlu-murra Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and how FMG gave it preferential treatment and provided funding for it to undermine YAC’s status as the legitimate agency — or prescribed body corporate under the Native Title Act — to represent the Yindjibarndi’s interests. FMG paid for extensive litigation to undermine YAC and launched defamation proceedings to silence its critics.

In negotiations with the Yindjibarndi, FMG offered terms that were beyond miserly. Breathtakingly so. For a resource valued at billions of dollars, it offered the Yindjibarndi just $3 million a year and another $1 million a year for elders, plus a one-off signing fee of $500,000. The company made great mileage out of the claim that royalties for communities amounted to mining welfare and did more harm than good. But, as Cleary points out, it forgot to mention how it benefited from paying so little. And it failed to include guarantees that trusts would be established to ensure payments continued to benefit communities. Instead, it focused on job creation for Indigenous people, which it in part delivered by channelling huge contracts to the rival corporation that supported it.

And just when you thought FMG couldn’t behave any worse, the company carried out a “brazen undercover” operation to nullify YAC’s impending native title hearing. It did this by supporting the breakaway group when it formed yet another Aboriginal organisation that staged a vote to silence Woodley and pull back from the native title claim. It paid people to turn up with $400 Woolworths vouchers. But that eventually backfired too, when the Federal Court handed down a “withering assessment” of FMG’s attempts to orchestrate a result in its own interests, without revealing to the local community how it would lose out financially by supporting the proposal.

The 25,000 square kilometres of the original Ngarluma–Yindjibarndi claim and the 2800 square kilometres of the additional claim are the site of some of the richest Indigenous heritage found anywhere in the world. Cleary calls FMG out for its lax approach to protection. For example, it sacked two archaeological consultancies that had expressed alarm about impending mining in heritage sites. One of these firms claimed FMG had not asked the right people about important sites, instead involving only people from the compliant breakaway group.

Cleary shows that FMG threatened to withhold a $70,000 payment to one firm until important ethnographic information that FMG said was prejudicial to its interests was removed from a report. The consultancy it then engaged was accused by WA’s Aboriginal affairs department of under-reporting possible heritage sites by 30 per cent.

The same consultancy obligingly said that no more archaeological work should occur at fourteen sites that had been identified as significant by previous surveys. These included ochre quarries and rock shelters, some likely to contain burial sites, and the halt to archaelogical investigation meant they could be destroyed to make way for the Solomon mine. At one of these quarry sites the firm then determined that no further work was required because it was already earmarked for destruction, as long as the Yindjibarndi were in agreement. Cleary found no evidence local people were ever asked.

Because FMG was in such a hurry it sometimes carried out extensive blasting without granting the Yindjibarndi people access to culturally significant sites, contrary to mining lease conditions. The WA registrar of Aboriginal sites, Kathryn Przywolnik, found deficiencies in the heritage surveys and accused FMG of not telling the whole story about the extent of the Indigenous heritage. Another anthropologist, Brad Goode, was sacked by FMG for identifying sites of significance. More than 170 sites in the Solomon mining area were downgraded to a “stored data — not a site” classification, meaning artefacts would be preserved and the site could be destroyed. And on and on the evidence and allegations go.

If this story didn’t have the element of redemption, it would be about as depressing a tale as you can imagine. The sustained abuse and manipulation of the community by FMG, chapter after chapter, lends a kind of rhythm to the writing. First there’s some tiny concession or ray of hope indicating someone understands that the First Nations people have inalienable rights and legitimacy. Then comes that insidious word “but” before the text proceeds to explain how even that concession or understanding wasn’t enough to stave off another assault. I found myself wondering how Cleary had the stamina to recount all this, before realising that as impressive as his dogged research is, it is nothing to the resilience of the Yindjibarndi over so many years.

This is an important and timely book. Cleary manages to make sense of how this opaque and protected industry works within a legal framework that favours miners and does little to support the interests of traditional owners. It is backed by deep research but written with journalistic clarity and a compelling narrative that rightly pits two people, and the cultures they represent, against one another.

Woodley emerges as the victor, not just because the Yindjibarndi ultimately won exclusive native title and staved off a High Court challenge from FMG — which in turn sets the scene for a mammoth compensation payout — but also because he appears determined to heal and reunite the Yindjibarndi community, which FMG has done so much to divide.

Andrew Forrest fares much less well. At one point Cleary describes Forrest’s beloved Minderoo cattle station, where he was raised, and which he repurchased as an adult, and after which he named his philanthropic foundation. While Forrest was driven to mine vast tracts of Aboriginal land, Cleary writes, he fought tenaciously and successfully to stop mining companies entering Minderoo. Alas, this recognition that mining irrevocably damages heritage and landscapes, and that people have deep emotional and cultural connections to the land, does not translate to FMG’s wider operations. •