"Wild Diamonds and Ancient Culture

By Janine Roberts - A sample from her forthcoming ' Glitter and Greed' book. c96 >

kangaroo picture

(Note. Other material on the struggle of indigenous minorities can be found here.)

I was sitting in the fine red dust of the Australian outback discussing diamond mining with Aborigines when I learnt that the police had been ordered in by helicopter to arrest me. Shocked by the news, I did not dream it then, but this was the start of an adventure that would ensnare me for a decade in an investigation of the secretive and dangerous diamond Syndicate; lead me to the White House and the Kennedies, to a sabotaged mine in Clinton's Arkansas, to diamond shipments to the Nazis and last of all to child cutters in India and the private diamond townships of southern Africa that still exclude black wives, to the fraudulent glitter of 47th Street in Manhatten and to the Dene in the Arctic who fear the loss of millenia old hunting grounds because common diamonds are sold as rare emblems of love.

Yet that sunny day in 1979 had seemed impossible to perturb. I was in Oombulgurri, an Aboriginal settlement in the remote north of Western Australia, in the rugged desert mountains of the Kimberleys. The air was still, the only sound the soft hum of flies and the occasional screech of a parrot. Under the spreading branches of a fat trunked boab tree using the sandy ground as my easel I had been explaining the techniques of diamond mining to two Aboriginal elders who sat before me as comfortably solid as if they grew from earth.

They were the senior Law Makers, the local religious equilivalent to archbishops but living in poverty. They wanted to know what mining diamonds would do to their land and environment. They questioned me and listened carefully and gravely. A mining company had set up a diamond exploration camp on their land and called it "Mumbo Jumbo" in a seemingly insulting reference to Aboriginal culture. They had heard the rumours of diamond finds throughout their tribal lands of the Kimberleys. Prospectors in light aircraft, helicopters and four wheel drives were pouring into their previously quiet land of dust blown plains, red rocked hills and deep gorges where I had a few days earlier walked among a crowd of dark furred and curious flying foxes hanging upside down from branches and then, at dusk, watched them spiral out like a host of vampires but only in search of pungent fruit.

The news of my impending arrest had been brought by the local schoolteacher from a nearby corrugated tin radio-hut. His message seemed so over the top, so extraordinary, that I could scarcely believe it. It seemed my crime was to visit these tribal reserve lands, without a newly required state government permit that could only be acquired from an office in the state capital Perth over a thousand miles away. It did not matter that the community had invited me, nor that a white haired elder had accompanied myself and a friend, into the Aboriginal reserve nor that the local police had never arrested anyone for this "crime" before and had to be ordered into action. Sitting under the boab tree with the elders it seemed scarcely credible that anyone would see what I was doing as so dangerous that it justified a raid by helicopter borne police.

Yet this place had not aways been peaceful. A cross erected on a hill above the settlement bore testimony to Aborigines massacred by a police party in 1928 within the memory of these elders. After a subsequent period in compulsory exile in white run institutions, the survivors in 1972 had returned joyously to Oombulgurri, to their ancestral and sacred land. It however remained state owned although reserved for Aborigines and they discovered on their return that in their absence the "Mumbo Jumbo" diamond prospecting camp had been set up by CRA, a company controlled by RTZ from London in the UK. The Aborigines could not throw them out, but they determined to be careful about allowing others in.

The elders sought information from me because I had researched and written on mining for many years and had worked with Aboriginal communities elsewhere. I was in the region at the invitation of the Kimberley Land Council, the representative body for local Aborigines, which had asked me to provide information on mining to its member communities as they were being swamped by a tidal wave of white diamond prospectors and miners. The Oombulgurri community some 6 months before my visit had evicted Stockdale, a diamond exploration company controlled by De Beers, a company owned by Oppenheimers of South Africa, perhaps the richest family in the southern hemisphere, because the community feared for their own and their land's future if they allowed the mining of sacred ancestral grounds.

In an angry response to Stockdale's exclusion, the premier of Western Australia, Charles Court, promulgated a new regulation preventing Aboriginal communities from controlling entry to their reserve lands. This was to ensure that Aborigines would not be able to block 'progress.' It was under his new regulation that I and my companion were threatened with arrest. It soon become clear that we had stumbled into the midst of a quiet war between De Beers, prospectors, government and the tribes.

We did not wait for the police to arrive, but hired the community's boat to return to the slaughterhouse town of Wyndham in the eastern Kimberley. I hoped this would protect my hosts from being harassed by the police for making us welcome. The mission boat was not much more than a rowing boat with an outboard motor, smaller than the crocodiles that lazed and frolicked just up stream from us. But we made it away, through the tangled mangrove roots, across the shark infested estuary that covered sediments believed by some to be very rich in diamonds, safely to Wyndham. The quayside was quiet when we arrived, the dust blown streets deserted before the on-coming monsoonal storm. We made our way to the home of the local district nurse where we were staying. We thought that was the end of the excitement but after dinner the police came around to arrest us. We were locked in a cell for a few hours and were later fined for our 'offence'. The local Aboriginal-run legal service maintained that our arrest was a violation of the basic civil right to invite guests to one's own home.

The Australian Aborigines, unlike the North American Indians, had never been accorded by the white colonists the respect of treaties. Their lands had been taken from them as if they were not human. Australian law at that time was based on the premise that Australia had been, when whites arrived, 'terra nullius', no one's land. Consequently the original Australians had lost all land rights, received no income from these lands, no mining royalties. Instead they had been left destitute and homeless. I had been invited to the Kimberleys because of my work to raise international awareness of their plight. I had just spent 3 years in Europe raising support for Aboriginal organisations and helping their voice be heard. This had included helping organise a land council speaking tour of five European nations funded by the World Council of Churches and others. I was now to attend the first meeting of Aboriginal Land Councils from both sides of the continent to discuss how to gain international support for their struggle to regain land rights.

In Perth, the capital of the state of Western Australia, before I came up to the Kimberlies I had met Robert Bropho, a man with an ancient face of strong brow lines who works passionately to improve the lot of Aboriginal children as an uncompromising and charasmatic leader of his people. He told me he decided to work with me because initially I sat silent with him, striving to communicate without words. He drove me to the Kimberley meeting from Perth, a long drive over roads that were sometimes no more than tracks. We slept under the stars, rising at what he called 'piccaniny dawn'- the first light when the parrots began to 'sing'. We took care in the latter stages of the drive to avoid bogging in deep 'bull-dust' piles that lay alongside the desert roads . We talked with the lawmakers at all Aboriginal camps we passed. They told us they were not against mining as such, for their people had always mined for tool-stones and clays, but wanted miners to respect the spirit of the land and Aboriginal ancestral rights.

The impoverishment they had suffered through loss of land had caused their health to grievously deteriorate. Instead of living into their 70s, as they did before whites arrived, they now died at least 10 years earlier. Their life expectancy was that of the poverty stricken inhabitants of 'third world' countries. Introduced leprosy was still present in the Kimberlies in the 1970s. One in four of their elders was blinded by trachoma. An Aboriginal mother in northern Australia in 1994 was 30 times more likely to die in childbirth than a white woman. Her child was 3 times more likely to die in the first year of life than the child of a white Australiani. The discovery of diamonds on tribal lands should have brought them the income needed to ameliate living conditions. Instead it further endangered their survival as a people by depriving them of yet more land and by swamping them with white settlers.

Before I went to Oombulgurri, I had visited the Aboriginal cattle station of Noonkanbah across the Kimberley mountains south west of Oombulgurri. To reach the settlement on the station I travelled a long dirt road across grassy plains broken by small rocky hills like to the 'Kopjes' of South Africa. This similarity is no coincidence. Australia was once joined to South Africa in the ancient continent of Gonwandaland. These hills are the worn down stumps of ancient volcanoes in both continents. Even the fat boab trees surrounding them in Australia have relatives in Africa. The forces that had split Australia and South Africa apart, caused volcanic eruptions to bring to the surface the carbon crystals known as diamonds. One night an Aboriginal elder sung me a very ancient song about the eruption of volcanoes. The State Geological Service in South Australia has established that Aboriginal legends give the correct sequence of eruptions although these events happened at least 10,000 years ago!

I had learnt that CRA, the British RTZ controlled Australian mining company, had found several small diamonds in the Noonkanbah's kopjes and on the surrounding plains. It had obtained mining tenements over 30 square kilometers of Noonkanbah despite the protests of the nearly 300 Aborigines who lived in shacks around the central station buildings. The state government had offered to build these Aborigines houses, but only if government overseers were allowed to bring in alcohol. The community did not agree for it had banned alcohol. The resulting impass meant these homes were not built. Noonkanbah was a major centre for Aboriginal culture. The Kimberley Land Council was created by 1,200 Aborigines gathered here for a song and dance festival some two years before my visit.

At Noonkanbah, as I would at Oombulgurri, I sat on the sand with the elders and, using Aboriginal style the sand as my easel, drew mining plans and showed how diamond-bearing gravels could be eroded from the remnants of volcanoes . The much revered elder and spiritual leader Nipper Tabigee became in turn my guide and teacher. He took me on a jolting drive across a dried section of river bed between dry season pools, where fresh water crocodiles sometimes lived, to a rocky hill called Djada. He told me his people once gathered here for ceremonies and asked me to follow as he climbed it. The hill was small, not the height of a tree. About half way up he stopped bythe mouth of a cave.

'Look, Jan', he said, 'can you see the bones?' I peered into the cave, momentarily blinded by the bright light outside. But when my eyes adjusted I saw long white bones inside. 'These are the bones of my people shot down by a police party when I was this high'. He indicated his thigh. Then, without a sign of bitterness, he quietly told me how a diamond exploration company had recently pegged and claimed the entire hill, entering the cave and taking the very sacred ceremonial objects stored inside. Some of these had been destroyed by the prospectors, some were taken to Melbourne and were later retrieved by Noonkanbah. 4

This was not the only burial ground desecrated on Noonkanbah. Aboriginal elder, 'Friday' Mullamulla, pointing to the potentially diamond rich plains around their settlement, had said, 'That is all CRA... they bring bulldozer about two miles back down that way... They cut all the way around all dead bodies. All around that place where we have taken the bones of the old people.' ii The Aboriginal people of Noonkanbah had sent a petition to the State Parliament written on bark and in Walmajeri, their language. In translation it read:

'We are sending this letter to you important people who can speak and who are now sitting down there talking in the big house. We, Aboriginal people of Noonkanbah Station, are sending you this letter. We truthfully beg you important people that you stop these people, namely CRA and AMAX (who were looking for oil), who are going into our land..

These people have already made the place no good with their bulldozers. Our sacred places they have made no good. They mess up our land. They expose our sacred objects. This breaks our spirit. We lose ourselves as a people. What will we as a people do if these people continue to make all our land no good? Today we beg you that you that you truly stop them.' iii

I had many conversations wth elders and others while at Noonkanbah. Their dilemna was that they had already agreed that CRA could prospect for a further 3 weeks if it used an Aboriginal guide to ensure no further trespass upon sacred places. Once consent was given, the elders did not like to withdraw it. But they now felt they had not been fully informed as no one had explained to them the likely size of a mine if diamonds were discovered. It also irked them that CRA would not conceed that traditional owners of the land had any right to a royality on its diamonds. A spokesman for the Noonkanbah community, Dicky Skinner, said: 'My law says ... if CRA's name is written upon the diamond, CRA is allowed to go down and get him. If CRA's name is not on it, ... it is for tribal peoples.' 5. I told them I had learnt CRA had found diamonds in 15 extinct volcanoes on Noonkanbah station.

On reflection, the elders decided they could not trust CRA to leave after prospecting if they found significant numbers of diamonds. It would surely bring in many more white people. They also noted with alarm that CRA had notified the government that it was also searching for uranium. It was time for legal action. Once they had decided to withdraw their consent to CRA's prospecting, Nipper Tabigee and other elders took me with them to Derby in an old car with no windscreen. After we arrived, windblown and dust covered, they told their lawyer to evict CRA and made the following statement:

'CRA, we have been thinking about you looking on our land. You say you only look at one part of our station then go away again after three weeks. But we say, after talking some more between ourselves, we don't want you because, if you find something up there, you may come more and more onto our land and we don't want that. Also you didn't tell us you also looking for uranium - that stuff dangerous for everyone.' 6

Following this, the Kimberley Land Council asked me to stay on as its guest to visit other communities. Soon afterwards two wite lawyers came up from Perth to speak to the elders at Noonkanbah about their decision to expel CRA . I was asked by the community to attend the same meeting. The lawyers spoke to the community on the benefits that mining could bring, including a mining township populated by Aborigines and many jobs for Aborigines. They did not mention that to date few Aborigines had been given responsible jobs in Australian mines , nor that the common experience of Aborigines living near mines, especially CRA's many mines, is of dispossession and powerlessness.

The elders then asked me to repeat what I had previously told them about the effects of diamond mining. I told them that miners normally scooped out the heart of a diamond rich extinct volcano by digging a pit at least a kilometre wide and perhaps 200 metres deep with shafts below this to 800 metres, and that the surrounding plains could be bull-dozed to find diamonds washed out by monsoonal rains. The discussion then continued in the Walmjeri language. Nipper Tabigee translated quietly for me. No one translated for the lawyers. I was then told the community had decided to maintain their ban on CRA. The lawyers were told to do nothing until they heard from the community.

The lawyers asked me to meet with them privately in a vast woolshed out of sight and hearing of the Aborigines, where they furiously questioned what right I had to give these Aborigines any advice. They angrily reminded me that I had no official standing with any government body. The lawyers said they knew I was going on to Oombulgurri and made unspecified threats about what would happen to me when I got there. But for the life of me, I did not expect they might persuade the federal and state governments to move against me.

Some months after I left Noonkanbah, the tribal elders of Noonkanbah once more directly challenged the State government. They wrote to the government on June 9th, 1980. 'You assumed we recognize the State Government's ownership of the land. Instead of this you should have recognized us, the Elders who hold the law for this country, as the real owners of the land.' iv

Premier Court replied in the West Australian newspaper:' 'I do not believe that such radical and unlawful views are really theirs.' He spoke of 'the extremist agitation began which led the community to make absurd claims amounting to sovereignty over the crown land they occupy as pastoral leaseholders.' v Fortunately as the Noonkanbah station was leasehold and not Aboriginal reserve land, he could not ban them from having visitors.

Shortly after the Premier made this statement, advertisements funded by the mining industry appeared on television showing a black hand building a wall across Western Australia accompanied by a voiceover claiming that Aboriginal land rights would rob other (white) Australians of their birthright. The Australian Mining Industry Council also warned that Aboriginal land rights could lead to 'a system of unauthorized totalitarian control by a minority within particular parts of Australia.' 9 The miners were at the forefront of the campaign contesting Aboriginal rights to tribal lands because the Aborigines mainly now lived on barren lands not wanted by graziers but where mineral rich rocks were exposed for the taking.

But Charles Court and his government could not see very far into the future. In 1992 a revolutionary High Court decision in the Mabo case, supported by six out of the seven judges involved, stated that Aboriginal 'native rights' to crown lands still existed as the British authorities had presumed to take over Aboriginal lands without making a formal order of dispossession by right of conquest. Only the lands given away as freehold by the Crown could not be regained. Aborigines under this ruling immediately laid claim to vast tracts of unalienated crown land. In 1993, the new Premier, Richard Court (the son of the Charles Court) vowed to fight this landmark High Court ruling by all the means available. The Australian Mining Industry Council, funded by all the major mining companies, united with him in opposition. Its members feared having to pay royalties to the tribes and having to protect sacred places. The Kimberley Land Council became once more locked in legal battle on behalf of the impoverished people they represented. The war still continues as I write in 1996.

c96Janine Roberts

i The Australian, 11 February 1995. ii As told to Steven hawke, unpublished document. 1978. iii Provided to me in 1979 by the Kimberley Land Council. iv Document provided by the Kimberley Land Council in 1979. v West Australian , 8 August 1980

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