The Age

Fortescue chief accused of undermining land owners

Author: By JAN MAYMAN
Date: 06/04/2011
Words: 586
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: News
Page: 3
MINING billionaire Andrew Forrest has been accused of undermining a group of indigenous people whose land he wants to use for a $5 billion iron-ore investment in the Pilbara, in Western Australia.

With a Federal Court judgment imminent on a last-ditch legal action by 700 traditional owners from the Yindjibarndi people, Mr Forrest has moved to strike a deal with 200 people in a breakaway group of the Yindjibarndi people.

At a public meeting with the breakaway group last week, Mr Forrest's lawyers had a fight over a microphone with one of the senior traditional owners who questioned whether the meeting was legal. "Andrew Forrest's Fortescue group is trying to pressure us into signing over control of our lands in an open-ended deal that will steal from future generations of our people," said Michael Woodley, senior elder and chief executive of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation.

As traditional owners, the corporation rejected an annual offer of $10 million a?? $4 million plus $6 million in work and training opportunities.

The compensation is for access to mine land that could earn $1 billion a year, the Solomon's Hub project, projected to produce at least 60 million tonnes a year of iron ore.

The group of 700 traditional owners said the offer was insulting. They want four times that, in line they say with other mining company settlements.

However, a splinter group, the Wirlu Murra Yindjibarndi, held a public meeting last month in the Pilbara township of Roebourne. The lower offer was accepted, and they agreed to cease further legal action.

Mr Woodley is seen in video of the meeting wrestling for a microphone with Andrew Forrest's solicitor, Perth commercial lawyer Ronald Bower. "I was shocked when he grabbed the mike away. He told me it was too late for me to speak, he seemed to be running the meeting," Mr Woodley said.

In the video, Mr Forrest can be seen directing Mr Bower and telling him what to do.

However, Mr Bower said he did not take the microphone away, rather Mr Woodley approached and tried to grab the microphone from him. "He tried to wrestle it out of my hands, I resisted, [and] there was a very short tussle, which lasted for mere moments."

Mr Woodley's lawyer, barrister George Irving, said he was astonished to see the microphone taken from Mr Woodley.

The corporation has raised concerns about whether the meeting was called properly, and raised legal questions about who formed the breakaway group of about 200, the Wirlu Murra Yindjibarndi. Their leader, a Roebourne woman called Allery Sandy, could not be reached for comment.

A Fortescue spokesman said Ms Sandy approached the company after the corporation rejected Fortescue's offer.

"We have held talks with her and her people in good faith," the spokesman said.

At the meeting Mr Forrest told the crowd that the more he got to know Aboriginal people "the more [I] love them". He said it was "utter bulldust" to suggest the millions of dollars paid to traditional owners would benefit him and his Fortescue shareholders. Mr Forrest said his company employed 350 Aboriginal workers, earning $24 million a year in Port Hedland. He said he wanted to help people in Roebourne with jobs, houses, training and support for those who could not work.

At the centre of the dispute is the huge Solomon's Hub project, which Fortescue Metals says will produce at least 60 million tonnes a year of iron ore: worth almost $1 billion.

A judgment is expected within weeks on the Yindjibarni Corporation's request for the Federal Court to set aside approval for the project.

 
 
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