An Indigenous woman has told a tribunal examining a development application by mining billionaire Andrew Forrest her people could be punished spiritually if they do not protect the Ashburton River.

Key points:

  • Mr Forrest wants to build 10 weirs along the river
  • The weirs would provide water for cattle and wildlife on Minderoo Station
  • Local Indigenous people are opposed to the proposal

Mr Forrest’s agricultural company is in the State Administrative Tribunal (SAT) appealing against the WA Government’s decision to refuse permission to construct 10 weirs along the Ashburton River.

Thalanyji woman Glenys Hayes told the tribunal of the river’s importance.

She referred to water snakes being “bosses” of the Ashburton River and adjoining pools.

A Thalanyji woman with dark sunglasses and a blue shirt walks to court

Thalanyji woman Glenys Hayes is opposed to Andrew Forrest’s proposed irrigation project on the Ashburton River.(

ABC News: David Weber

)

“The main boss goes up and down the river,” she said.

“Others can too.”

Water snakes ‘not a myth’

Ms Hayes was questioned by Forrest & Forrest representative Ken Pettit, SC about other developments in the area.

He asked Ms Hayes whether an existing weir, and the town of Onslow, had disturbed the water snake.

Wide shot of a river with eucalypts in the foreground.

The Ashburton River runs through an area where the Thalanyji people have shared native title rights on pastoral land.(

Supplied: Bill Lawrie

)

She said Thalanyji people understood that development happened.

“But if sites aren’t protected, they’ll be punished spiritually,” she said.

Ms Hayes was asked if she agreed with an assertion that the water snake was a myth.

“Don’t consider it to be a myth,” she said.

“It’s not a myth [it’s a] true story”.

Company accepts sacred site status

Mr Forrest’s company Tattarang had applied to construct the weirs to provide water for cattle and wildlife at Minderoo station.

It has accepted that the Ashburton River is an important and sacred Aboriginal site.

While its plan would alter the flow of the river, it has argued the amount of water affected would be a small fraction of the average annual flow.

An aerial view of the Ashburton River.

Mr Forrest’s company wants to build 10 weirs along the river.(

Supplied: Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation

)

The application was refused by the now former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt.

The minister’s submission to the tribunal stated there was no dispute that the effects of the Managed Aquifer Recharge Scheme, “when viewed from a non-Aboriginal perspective, may be relatively minor and perhaps positive”.

The submission said it was not in dispute that the scheme was likely to bring benefits, though whether the proponent or the general public gained the most was an issue.

But from an Aboriginal perspective, “the Thalanyji people perceive that human interference with the natural order of the river will have harmful spiritual effects upon Thalanyji country and Thalanyji people”.

It said country and people could not be separated.

Minderoo Station driveway

The company wants to build the weirs to water cattle and wildlife on Minderoo Station.(

ABC North West: Lucie Bell

)

In a statement, the Buurabalayji Thalanyji Corporation said it supported the Minister’s decision and remained opposed to the construction of 10 additional weirs along Mindurru (the Ashburton River).

“Our members have been custodians of this river system for over 60,000 years, and there is a very low appetite to allow damage to this site for the sole benefit of a local pastoralist.”

Birds flying just above the water on a river.

The irrigation plan would alter the flow of the Ashburton River.(

Supplied: Buurabalayji Thalanyji Aboriginal Corporation

)

Mining billionaire Andrew Forrest fights to build river weirs on sacred land in WA’s Pilbara
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