Mining at Iron Knob

The next matter referred to me involved a claim to protect an area from mining at BHP’s mine at Iron Knob in South Australia, a step that would sterilise millions of dollars worth of iron ore. The Aboriginal people in the area had lived an urbanised life for some time, and when the elderly Aboriginal woman who had instigated the claim died, there was no local person who could speak authoritatively to it. With financial assistance from BHP, which acted throughout in a very sympathetic and co-operative fashion, senior traditional Aboriginal men and women from other tribes far to the north were brought to Iron Knob. Although they had never visited the area before, they knew of the country in detail through songs and dances that recorded the stories attached to a Dreaming track that passed through Iron Knob on the way to their own country. They were immediately able to recognise and explain the mythical significance of the various features of the landscape.

For reasons that are too complex to go into here, this case would have presented me with a difficult balance to draw up, but the matter took a surprising twist. The BHP manager became committed to the importance of preserving Aboriginal culture, offering money for books, films, dancing companies, and visits by local to more traditional peoples. The Aboriginal people were grateful and impressed, but still unable to agree to the destruction of the site. The impasse was broken when the manager offered to dig up the sacred site and install it on land the company would provide for a cultural centre at Whyalla. I expected this proposal to get no support, as the actual location of the site seemed critical to its significance, but to my surprise the proposal was immediately embraced by the leading Aboriginal spokeswoman, and a deal was done. Some of the men, however, seemed uneasy, and I was not unduly surprised to learn a few years later that the Aboriginals had regretted their decision and persuaded the company to leave the site undisturbed.