WARRIOR FROM A FAR COUNTRY
He has also gone bush with elders of his Gangalidda tribe, hunting saltwater crocodiles with a dinghy and a three-metre spear. He has been been circumcised - "with a blade or stone, can't talk too much about that" - and initiated into Aboriginal law.
In a Brisbane coffee lounge he won't bare the ceremonial scars on his chest, but rolls up his sleeve to show ten or so circles similar to cigarette burns, made by the red-hot point of a burnt stick. Initiation means "big power, 10 times more for a blackfella than any degree".
Tall, good-looking, brash, articulate and angry, Yanner has suddenly become the radical voice of black Australia. A leading opponent of TRZ-CRA's proposed Century Zinc mine in the Gulf, Yanner calls the Prime Minister, John Howard, "a racist redneck" and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission leaders who support the mine "stooges". He mocks the advice of Queensland Premier Rob Borbidge to cool it come in for a cup of tea. "Tea? I read the history books. I know about the strychnine."
This week Yanner and five other leaders of Gulf of Carpentaria Aboriginal communities flew to Brisbane to tell the nation that the world's largest zinc mine, said to be worth $9 billion over the next 20 years, will not go ahead. At a two hour press conference, the group insisted that the "overwhelming majority" of the 5000 Gulf Aborigines opposed the mine.
Construction of the mine, on which the largest mining company in Australia, RTZ-CRA, has already spent $200 million,awaits the outcome of negotiations with Aboriginal groups. The mine has been supported by the Queensland and Australian Governments, the Federal Opposition, and by ATSIC leaders such as Lois O'Donaghue, who has said that the majority of Aboriginal groups in the Gulf support the mine.
CRA, which has offered Aboriginal groups $60 million in compensation, has said it will not mine without "broad community support" from Aborigines. Jim Singer of Century Zinc, a CRA subsiduary formed to manage the mine, says the support exists, but is "not always as vocal as the opposition".
He says that if construction does not begin late this year a Dutch contract, worth half the mine's output, will be lost. "We have negotiated in good faith for nine months and don't believe we need to go through the whole process again."
But this week Yanner's group won a small victory when O'Donaghue attacked as "divisive and inflammatory" planned state and federal legislation to guarantee the mine, and called for more talks. And Mr. Howard now seems uncertain whether backing for the mine is confirmed, and wants to see a written statement from Aboriginal groups.
The doubt turns on the great complexity of Aboriginal culutre in the Gulf. THe United Gulf Region, Aboriginal Corporation (UGRAC) represents nine tribes, in an area Yanner says is the size of France. Yet when Aborigines are taken off their land and herded into reserve, conflicts between and among tribes emerged that can persist to this day. Ties are close, feuds intense.
In 1990, CRA discovered a large deposit of zinc a pastoral lease. in the Gulf. In 1994. the Waanyi people, whose land cov ers the mine site, made a native table claim to a small camping and water reserve on the edge of the site. The Queensland Government and CRA challenged the claim in the Federal Court, which ruled that a pastoral lease without reservation for traditional Aboriginal use extinguished native title.
But in February the High Court set aside the Federal Court decision and ruled that the Native Title Tribunal had to hear the claim. James Nugent, UGRAC coordinator, who has been part of negotiations on the mine since October, thinks that without the claim and High Court decision, mining would have already begun. "The effect was to invalidate mineral leases agreed upon by the company and the Queensland Government."
Nugent says past government policies "completely subjugated" Gulf Aborigines. "That's why someone strong as Murrandoo is right out of the box, a phenomenon in the Gulf." But be adds, that Yanner's forcefulness can make it hard for other people to express a view. - On 28 June, a meeting of UGRAC voted by 12 to 1 1 In favor of the mine. But Yanner, alleging that the vote was invalid, organised another UGRAC vote last week. That meeting opposed the mine by 19 to nil. Allegations were exchanged by both sides, while O'Donoghue accused Yanner, who came to the first meeting carrying a spear and a woomera, of intimidation.
Australian Democrats' leader Cheryl Kernot, who met Yanner's group this week, describes him as a "passionate, intelligent young man . When the group asked her for a Senate inquiry into the handling of the 28 June meeting, Kernot told them they had to produce evidence first. Kernot would not say whether the Democrats would oppose Government legislation to ensure the mine goes ahead. She describes the Queensland Government's planned use of such legislation as a "heavy handed tactic", that threatens to ruin any chance of agreement being reached. But she says It is very hard, sitting in Brisbane, to assess Aboriginal opinion in the Gulf on the mine.
This week Yanner's group toured Brisbane seeking Aboriginal support. It was invited to open an exhibition, meet inmates of a youth detention centre, and visit Queensiand's only Aboriginal primary school. At the Murri School Yanner signed autographs for the children, who had all seen him on television.
The group also marched into Parliament House because "they come on our sacred ground. we go an theirs", said Yanner. With a media throng behind, Yanner convened an impromptu press conference, denouncing a new barbed-wire security wall at the detention centre as a breach of "human rights".
The media's focus on Yanner angered other members of his group, keen to stress the breadth of opposition to the mine. Chosen as a spokesmen because of his media background, Yanner tried to spread the attention around, But it was his fiery rhetoric and quick quotes to which the media returned.
Wadjularbinna, a gently spoken member of the Gangalidda tribe, came to Brisbane to talk of the spiritual importance of her country, but left despairing that her message wasn't getting across.
Wadjular describes conception as a "spiritual transaction" and says the land on which it occurs is sacred to the child's life. But her own conception followed the rape of her mother by a white stranger. In the 1930's, tribal men would often suffocate children born of rape, but wadjular was hidden in the bush and later smuggled back into camp.
The experiences of Wadjular's life - growing up "under the sky, with tea-tree bark for a cradle", being taken from her family by missionaries, forced by them to marry a man she didn't know, then after many years being reunited with her mother and her land - have led her to fervent opposition to the mine.
"We don't want the billions of dollars... There are mines all over Australia and Aborigines living in third world conditions. They have lost their connections to their land."
Wadjular, who has spoken against the mine at a CRA shareholders meeting in Melbourne, is frightened of the future if Century goes ahead. "Black people are not going to take it lying down. Everywhere black people have given in, but not this time. I am not a party to violence, but there will be bloodshed, black people attacking black people who are prepared to sell their souls."
Like Wadjular, Yanner says the mine is not negotiable. He describes the country as "pre-1788 pristine" and says that the 3000 white people to have visited it in the past five years all say the same thing. "There's nothing left like it in Australia."
"What's alive in this room?," he asks, sitting in a Brisbane coffee lounge. "These tables are dead, the carpets are dead, even the air outside is dead. You sit in the bush for a second, even the sticks have life, go crack crack crack when you stand on them. A bird swoops, leaves fall, ants come out and take them to their holes. The sun, the shade, the trees, everything has life. Chief Seattle said, when the last tree has been felled, the last fish caught, only then will they realise they can't eat money."
Yet Cheryl Kernot says the group, when she met them, was prepared to discuss a way of allowing the mine. That involved running a pipeline that will remove the zinc not to the coast, as planned by CRA, but to Mt. Isa, then by rail t oTownsville. "I think the company has a bit of work to do to show why that option is not viable."
But Jim Singer says that the Townsville option would cost an extra $600 million over the life of the mine. "If we were forced to go that way it would kill the project."
The company wants legislation for the mine to go ahead. But Aboriginal opinion seems to be at least evenly divided on the mine. Singer says that in May the CRA board voted that if broad community support was not there, it "would consider ceasing expenditure on the project. That is not to say we would walk away from the deposit forever."
While he has concerns about the CRA package, James Nugent has advised Aborigines to continue negotiations. He believes strong environmental safeguards have been achieved. But he says that Aborigines, "under a lot of pressure from company and government, are now faced almost with a fait accompli. My own advice ultimately has been that eventually all the legal impediments will be removed. Then there is people power, sitting down in front of bulldozers. Will the people of the Gulf follow Murrandoo? I don't know."
Mr. Howard has described Century as a huge test of the reconciliation process, warning that if Aborigines block the project it could unleash redneck anti-Aboriginal elements. Moderate Aboriginal leaders, fearful that the onus falls on Aborigines to achieve reconciliation, may well greet such views with dismay.
But Yanner says that if the mine goes ahead, "we send a call out to the nation, blackfellas everywhere. We assemble on the lands, like Sitting Bull and all those lads. If 10,000 turn up, we might take over Mt. Isa". For Yanner the issue is black and white, and fire is fought with fire.
"The fuse has been lit and it's burning. The only question is how long it takes to get to the powder keg."
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Go to Recent Articles ListText marked up by Sarah Peckham 27/6/96.