Mining coal on hallowed ground
Glencore under fire over plans to dig up site of aboriginal massacre
EIGHTEEn men, women and children were slaughtered on the evening of September 1, 1826, when their camp was attacked by mounted police.
The massacre of the Wonnarua people was revenge for the murder a few days earlier of two convict workers accused of raping their women.
It was one of the bloodiest episodes in the ‘Frontier Wars’ of new South Wales between the early settlers and aborigines. And it took place in the Hunter Valley, now better known for its coal mines and full-bodied Shiraz wine.
Almost 200 years later, Glencore is locked in a long-running dispute with indigenous leaders and local authorities over plans to expand a coal mine on the site where the massacre is believed – by some at least – to have taken place.
Planning permission has already been turned down and Glencore is now fighting a proposed heritage listing designed to protect it from being dug up.
It is the latest salvo in a much bigger conflict, which escalated three years ago when Rio Tinto detonated Juukan Gorge, a sacred 60,000-year-old site in Pilbara, Western Australia.
Mining companies across Australia, accused for years of paying lip service to the original owners of the land, are now having to tread very carefully.
The case in the Hunter Valley is less clear cut than Juukan Gorge, which brought global condemnation of Rio Tinto’s actions.
Glencore is eyeing 135m tons of coal lying beneath the ground, worth more than £10bn at today’s prices.
This deposit holds the key to extending the life of the open-pit Glendell mine, currently due to close next year, until 2044.
The war in Ukraine has caused the price of thermal coal to soar to record highs, giving miners like Glencore extra incentive to dig up more of it.
The problem Glencore faces is that the coal is buried under a remote rural homestead called Ravensworth, consisting of a ramshackle stone farmhouse, and a couple of out buildings.
This has been identified by some oral indigenous traditions as the site of the slayings.
‘This place is hallowed ground for us,’ says Scott Franks ( pictured), who is a local archaeologist and a Wonnarua man.
He added: ‘ But Glencore has shown us no respect, they are only after the coal.’
The reality though, is that the precise location of the massacre is unknown.
So while the site is deemed sacred by some indigenous locals, others have dismissed the significance of the site and believe the killings took place elsewhere.
This uncertainty has formed the basis of Glencore’s case.
It has already gone to great lengths. It has hired a local historian who concluded that although
Ravensworth was the scene of a number of attacks by aboriginal warriors and retaliations by settlers, the massacre is more likely to have taken place more than 15 miles away.
Ravensworth, which lies around 100 miles north of Sydney, is thought to have been built in 1832 for Dr James Bowman, a few years after the massacre.
Dr Bowman, from Carlisle in Cumbria, was the chief surgeon on early convict ships to Australia and was later appointed as the principal surgeon for the colony of new South Wales.
He became a pastoralist, grazing sheep on 12,000 acres of land. Bowman’s former estate is now owned and maintained by Glencore, which bought the mining lease for the land 26 years ago.
The FTSE 100-listed firm has submitted a proposal to move the buildings to a local farm, or to a nearby village called Broke, rebuild it stone by stone and open it up to the public.
This has received the support of a group of residents and business people, as well as neighbouring Singleton town council.
But its planning application was blocked in October by new South Wales’ Independent Planning Permission.
It accepted the conclusion of both the state’s heritage and planning departments that the massacre is unlikely to have occurred on the Ravensworth estate. But it still ruled that destroying the property or moving it, and that mining the ground for coal, would desecrate a culturally significant colonial-era landscape.
To make matters worse for Glencore, the state’s heritage council is now seeking a heritage listing for Ravenscroft, broadening it to span an area of more than 1,200 acres. The company fears that this would force it to shut down the Glendell mine and abandon its expansion plans.
Amid global targets to move away from fossil fuels, and hit net zero carbon emissions targets, many might argue this can only be a good thing.
But it will come as a blow to many in the local community, with hundreds of local workers set to lose their jobs when the mine closes.
Glencore is now mulling over its next move, including whether to submit a fresh proposal to expand the mine.
A spokesman for the company said the heritage listing proposal ‘does not present a balanced or factual assessment of the significance of the homestead and its surrounding landscape’.