First Nations groups have criticised the time it’s taken a state government department to investigate why a large area of bush was bulldozed in northern Western Australia.

Key points:

  • 120 hectares of native bush on Yakka Munga Station was cleared in June 2019 
  • The WA government ordered the pastoral company to stop work after clearing was declared “illegal”
  • There’s been no decision yet to prosecute or penalise the company

About 120 hectares of bush was cleared without a permit on Yakka Munga Station, a 190,000 hectare cattle station east of Derby, during a fortnight in June 2019. 

In response to the clearing, Nyikina Mangala families, who are the native title holders, blockaded the station gates to prevent heavy machinery from entering the property.

But the damage was done. Traditional owners lost significant sites, ancient trees, and termite mounds that contained bones of ancestors.

A number of protesters with their arms in the air standing at gate to cattle station

The Niykina Mangala people want to know if the company will be held to account for its actions.(ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)

Zenith Australia Investment Holding was ordered to stop clearing by the WA government, despite claiming that it was carrying out essential pastoral work.

Nyikina woman Rosita Shaw, who organised the blockade, said she still felt hurt by the loss of significant cultural sites at Yakka Munga.

“Within the Yakka Munga area there’s a lot of significant and sacred sites.

“If our old people had been alive they would have been devastated to see what had happened there.”

An aerial view of large cross-roads cleared through bush

An aerial view of some of the land clearing at Yakka Munga Station in the Kimberley.(ABC News)

Ms Shaw said native title holders had not been updated on the long investigation by three government departments or on the mandated revegetation.

“It’s very, very frustrating,” she said.

Department still investigating

The maximum penalty under the Environmental Protection Act for clearing without a permit is $500,000 for a company and $250,000 for an individual.

The Department of Water and Environmental Regulation (DWER) said in a statement the 27-month investigation was “still being finalised” and no date for its completion had been set.

A spokesperson said no penalty or court summons had been issued and there was also “no time limitation for action to be taken by the department”.

Image of police officers speaking to protesters on the road to an isolated cattle station.

WA Police speak with Nyikina Mangala protesters at the gates of Yakka Munga Station in June 2019.(ABC Kimberley: Claire Moodie)

The Kimberley Land Council, in a statement, described the department’s process as “apathy”.

“Apathy from the department in enforcing legislation on behalf of Aboriginal people is not consistent with heritage protection being a priority for government, but consistent with the government acting in favour of industry,” the council said.

“The apathy for prosecuting cultural heritage offences the department has shown during their investigation of Yakka Munga is not an isolated incident.”

WA Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook also criticised DWER, but for taking a “heavy-handed” approach towards the company.

“This was a Chinese company that was going to spend an inordinately large amount of money on a property,” Mr Seabrook said.

“There must have been a better way of dealing with the issues than to come at them with a heavy-handed approach, that cost them a massive amount of money, set back their program enormously and would have left them smarting.” 

Way forward

Revegetation was ordered in September 2019 and progress was mostly monitored using satellite imagery.

The Office of the Commissioner of Soil and Land Conservation visited the site in May 2021, and another visit is scheduled for this month. 

DWER says the cleared land “continues to revegetate”. 

Rosita Shaw wants companies like Zenith to undergo cultural awareness training.

“They need to do cultural awareness before they put a bulldozer on the ground. If any developer wants to do something, cultural awareness is the main thing they should do first.”

Image of land cleared on a remote cattle station in the Kimberley. The cleared land stretches towards the horizon.

Land was cleared on Yakka Munga Station for a fortnight before it was stopped.(Supplied)

‘Apathy’ blamed for department’s long delay after ancient trees bulldozed
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