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Forestry and mining operations on the Tiwi Islands

CHAIR —I welcome Mr Kerinaiua, who is at the table, and Mr Rioli, who is on the phone to us. Thank you both for joining us. We do not have submissions from either of you, but we have decided to hear you both together. Some senators may ask questions that are directed at both of you in which case please each feel free to share your comments one after the other, noting that it is a little harder with one in person and one on the phone, but we will juggle things as best we can. I invite both of you to make an opening statement or a few introductory remarks about this issue if you wish. We will start with you, Mr Rioli, if there are some opening remarks that you might like to make.

Mr Rioli —There was hardly any communication at all between our landholders and the forestry people. Once they had got our signatures to go ahead and clear the land we were virtually left in the dark. They would not talk to us. The only time they would talk to us was if they had more issues or more land to clear or any time they needed anything. There was never any proper communication. The only time they communicated with us was when they wanted land off us. Once they had got it we were just left out in the cold.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Rioli. Mr Kerinaiua, do you have something to add?

Mr Kerinaiua —Good morning to you all. I just want to know how the money is being distributed to all the landowners from the forestry. Last year I flew over to Garden Point and I got the biggest shock of my life seeing those local trees removed and the planting of all those acacia trees. I do not know who distributed all the money. A lot of people back home go to the land council office and ask for their royalty money and all they can get is $100 food vouchers or $500, just to spend at their local store, and the prices are too high. How are we going to manage to live like this if Tiwi people are not benefiting from those trees? I am really disappointed with how the land council and the Great Southern went about doing their own business, which is clearing the trees. They only consulted with certain people, not the whole landowning groups. It was just the people behind the land council. They are the ones speaking for the people; they are the ones doing the deals. But the local people do not see the paperwork. They do not see how the money is being distributed and where it is coming from.

A lot of young kids rely on royalty money. I know they spend their royalty money on food. They do not get cash money, they only get food vouchers and we have bills to pay. How are we going to survive in the Western world? How are the Tiwi people going to survive in the next century? We need to stop and think what the Great Southern people are thinking and what they are doing. They are destroying our land. They are destroying our culture. All our ancestors are buried on that island. I am really disappointed because the Great Southern and the land council should have been consulting the whole lot of the land use people, the people who own the land. You have to consult them before you go ahead and do things. What I think with the tree money coming in is that we are getting little peanuts money. We are not living in the past—this is a new, modern generation. How are we going to manage things?

I feel sorry for all those people whose land has been cleared and all those acacia trees put in. I know we can make a lot of money from doing a lot of things, but they are using chemicals and I am not sure whether it is good or bad. We need to know all those things that the Great Southern is putting in those plantations. I am not too scared to speak up. I am not scared, and I will speak up for my people. The plantation is not making much money; we are not getting a lot of money in. I will tell you how much we are getting. We are getting about $1,500 every three months or maybe more. That is not fair and that is not right for those people to go and plant that plantation. It is a risk to our lifestyle and our food; it is very, very hard. What are we going to do in the next 10 or 20 years? There will be no animals on that island and there will be no food for us. That is why I am really concerned for my people, so I have come today to speak to you and to tell you how I feel and how my people feel.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Kerinaiua and Mr Rioli, for your opening remarks. Could each of you tell us whereabouts on the island you are from and with which landowner group you are associated?

Mr Rioli —I am from Munupi in the north-west of Melville Island. Munupi is the only group from this area.

CHAIR —I am looking at the map that is in front of me and that seems to be where the majority of the forestry is.

Mr Rioli —We were the ones who allowed forestry in. Forestry came into Melville Island through our community because we are up this way. Can I just say something in support of what Adam was saying before in regard to the squabbling with the little bit of chicken feed that comes through in lease payments of $20 per hectare. Also when the forestry originally came over to the islands and they first put their proposals forward to us, people up at Garden Point put in a bid to get forestry happening up there. Do you understand that there was not enough shown in their proposal? We were just told an x amount of hectares. We are not farmers—we are footballers and we are hunters and gatherers. We do not know anything about a hectare. So they came and just told us that x amount of hectares were going to be cleared—there was not much actually shown in their proposal of what they wanted to do. There were concerns among the people as the land was cleared and they realised that more land was going to be cleared than they first thought.

There were no minutes to show how the meetings were conducted and what was said at the meetings. There was no process in regard to that. Then the forestry mob that came in then directly told us that it was going to happen whether we liked it or not. We are concerned about how it affects the people in the community that is up at Garden Point. I am just supporting what Adam said in regard to the little bit of chicken feed that comes in and the squabbling that is actually happening over the little bit of money that has been coming in. Sorry I got a bit off the track there—I will let Adam say something now.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Rioli.

Mr Kerinaiua —I am from the Mantiyupwi landowner group, which is that community on the two islands right up to Cape Cambier—we are Picka.

CHAIR —So it is essentially the southern stretch across the two islands. Do you oppose forestry on the island point blank, Mr Kerinaiua, or if the returns were better, would you think there was a place for forestry? I ask that because in your opening remarks you made strong comments about what are the people going to do, what are the young people going to do, where are they going to get income from in future and so on. So do you think there could be a place for forestry, or do you think forestry is not an option?

Mr Kerinaiua —I think a bit of both. If the forestry is still going, they need to create more jobs for our people and train them as well to be qualified. But the other thing I am thinking as well is that the forestry has not really benefited our people. I know a few Tiwi local people are working there, but I do not see more than 20 local people on that forestry. They probably have five or six people—it depends on the workers. I do not really agree with the forestry because it is not making money for the people. There are a lot of ways to make money.

When the forestry first came out I was supportive of it, but when I got better information about the forestry I sort of changed my mind. I was against it because I do not believe that the land council will take over the forest—I think it should be given to somebody; someone found to take it up. If they can’t, I would probably ask the Great Southern to replant those trees, because when we die we get buried over there—our souls returns to grass and the roots of the trees and the animals around the islands.

The thing with Great Southern is that we are not getting much money that we would love to get; we are only getting a little peanut money. It is not feeding all the Tiwi people, it is only certain people. With the money the land council is getting, only certain people get lump sum money from the royalty money. Other families get less. That is why I asked the land council many, many times if they could tell me who distributes the money and where the money is going to. I have asked that many times.

I was in that land council three years ago and all they could do was intimidate a lot of people. They threatened people. They asked me whether I would agree to it, and I said no. That is why they stood me down from the land council because I did not believe. Those people in the land council should be sitting back relaxing now, sitting back drinking a cup of tea. It is time for young people to step up. There are a lot of young people over there, a lot of educated people, and the land council never give anyone a chance. I asked the land council about Marjorie. A lot of councils have women in them, and parliament has women in it. Why is the Tiwi Land Council so different to the other councils in Australia? I know it is a cultural reason, but they need to understand that women are the voice. Women have got the voice, not the men. The men want some money. I tell you it is the truth. The women might sit back looking after their kids, but I will tell you now that I want women in that land council because women are the voice for our young generation.

CHAIR —It was put to us yesterday that as we get to the point where the tree crops are harvested, there will be more jobs and more income than is currently the case. If that eventuates and there is actually more benefit for the island as that point of harvest begins—and you will then have a cycle of harvesting and replanting rather than what has been simply the start-up phase of planting—would you feel better about the forestry proposals in those instances?

Mr Kerinaiua —If they go back to their traditional owners and make a deal again—at the moment the deal is not really good. I am not really happy with the deal because my people are suffering. A lot of young people are finding it hard to get money. They are all on the dole. The land council say they get 27 people working on the Great Southern—that is a lot of lies.

CHAIR —You served on the land council, so I assume you have heard of Tiwi Resources?

Mr Kerinaiua —Yes.

CHAIR —Tiwi Resources, we have been told, is the entity that was established to receive the money from Great Southern and distribute it to the landowner groups affected by forestry. Is that a fair precis of what the broad aim of Tiwi Resources is?

Mr Kerinaiua —Yes, they distribute the money but, like I said earlier, there are only certain people getting a big bucket and others are getting less. So I think Tiwi Resources need to be fair and even to all those landowning groups. I do not care whether he is the trustee and he has got the most people in his groups, and this one has got probably only 20 or 30. Let us be fair and share the money around, because we are all one people over there, we are all related, we all die, we all bleed and we speak the same language.

CHAIR —When you talk about sharing the money around and spreading it across the landowning groups, are you suggesting that the income from forestry should go evenly across all eight landowning groups as they are recognised, even the ones that do not have forestry?

Mr Kerinaiua —No, I am talking about those people that have plantation, like for instance Mantiyupwi has more than 300 people on the landowning groups, so I am not sure how much they are getting. I asked about the figures for the forestry and how the money is distributed to all the families of the landowning group, so one gets probably $20,000 or $30,000 and the other probably gets $5,000 or maybe less. They give the most to the people with the land council.

CHAIR —Great Southern gets criticised a lot during this process, but is that the fault of Great Southern or is that the fault of the Tiwi Land Council? Great Southern presumably are looking to pay somebody, and I am assuming that in negotiations the Tiwi Land Council said, ‘You put the payments through Tiwi Resources?’

Mr Kerinaiua —I reckon the land council but a bit of both I think. I think it is a bit of both because the Great Southern has not consulted with the whole Tiwi people. I tell you now that they only consult with the people on the land council—they do not consult with the people outside the land council. Those people that are elected to the land council pass on the message to the other family members.

CHAIR —Do you think average Tiwi people understand how Tiwi Resources work and how they can, if they are entitled to some forestry money, actually get their hands on it?

Mr Kerinaiua —No.

CHAIR —I am not surprised, because I think it has taken us three days of hearings to work it out ourselves.

Mr Kerinaiua —They would have no understanding how to tap into that money because they are not really strong like I am.

CHAIR —Mr Rioli, I have left you there for a little while, but do you have anything you want to add to those issues that I have been talking about before I go to Senator Crossin for some questions?

Mr Rioli —Yes, I do. Could you just repeat the question about forestry being good or something for Tiwis?

CHAIR —Sure. I was asking whether you opposed the forestry outright or if a fairer financial deal existed whether you think there could be some place for forestry.

Mr Rioli —When it originally came out I was against it but as our elders really gave us no options we decided to try to get on board and make the most of what was happening. One concern I have is that I have just found out that apparently this acacia is a noxious weed. I want to know whether that is true, whether that is fact. The other concern is that these trees take 12 years to mature. That is 12 years of possible cyclones. In those 12 years you could get one good cyclone that destroys everything and you would virtually have to go back to the start. I am really concerned that I have got all my eggs in one basket and I do not think that forestry is the answer for us on the Tiwi Islands. But now that they have cleared all this land and planted all this acacia I think there are other pastoral and agricultural options that we should look at. I do not think we should be doing all forestry and all acacia; it is a very risky venture. As I said, with 12 years of dodgy cyclones I do not like the chances. That answers the forestry question—what was the next one?

CHAIR —We also asked about Tiwi Resources and whether you know what Tiwi Resources is and does in relation to the distribution of forestry money.

Mr Rioli —I am with Adam there. None of us on the islands really know how the money is distributed, how it is filtered through the land council or how it is divided up—why some families get more than others. We have not got a clue; we have been asking the land council on numerous occasions to try to be a bit more transparent and open in their dealings so that the communities can get involved and understand what is happening. But at the moment we just virtually take what we are given and that is it. Not many people on the Tiwis, apart from the Tiwi Land Council and Tiwi Resources, would know what was happening with the payments and how they are distributed through the land council.

Senator CROSSIN —Could I just go to the question of the distribution of money. We were told yesterday by the Tiwi Land Council that $20 per hectare for rent is paid. Of that, $18 goes into an account that is held by Tiwi Resources Pty Ltd, and $2 goes into some sort of trust fund for an education fund. So if you then take the $18 per hectare that is held by Tiwi Resources, my understanding from yesterday’s evidence is that that is the money you go to if you want to draw down for these vouchers. In a report we have, the Mantiyupwi family group apparently in 2007-08—for that year—had access to or got around $254,000. So I am assuming that is the amount that is held in the Tiwi Resources bank account for the Mantiyupwi family. Mr Rioli, did you ever get access to any of that money, or do you know how to access that money?

Mr Rioli —I think you should ask Mr Kerinaiua that question. Did you say Mantiyupwi?

Senator CROSSIN —The Mantiyupwi family group, which is your area isn’t it, Mr Rioli?

Mr Kerinaiua —No, it is mine. Manyi’s is Munupi.

Senator CROSSIN —Sorry, I meant Munupi.

Mr Rioli —That is news to me. You would think that I would be aware of these payments but I had no idea that that payment actually went through and had been distributed to our trust funds.

Senator CROSSIN —My understanding is that the Tiwi Land Council have made a decision that that money does not get paid to people in cash, that it is held in a bank account—I am assuming by Tiwi Resources—and that if you want to access payment for a funeral or for the store vouchers you talk about that is the bank account they come out of. But there is a great lot of confusion about how the 67 families they talk about actually get access to this money dollar by dollar, person by person. I do not think we actually really drilled down yesterday into how someone like you, Mr Rioli, actually gets access to that money if you are not on the land council, for example, or if you do not know about it.

Mr Rioli —You have to keep humbugging this mob. One of the things that I am worried about is that if you talk to any other Aboriginal person from mainland Australia who receives royalty payments every one of them will be able to tell you what month, what day,  their payment is coming and how much is coming in for them. I am just confused as to how the land council knows about all their royalty payments yet we know nothing.

Senator CROSSIN —Mr Kerinaiua, you were once on the land council. Can you remember how people apply for permits and how they are granted?

Mr Kerinaiua —With the permit system, they ring the local council office, which is the shire, and they used to keep the permit book—

Senator CROSSIN —In the shire?

Mr Kerinaiua —Yes, that is the old TILG. They do not have it now. They took it back to the land council. So the traditional owner of that place signs the permit for the visiting people. But my understanding is that at the moment you do not need a permit. Is that right?

Senator CROSSIN —Well, you don’t—

Mr Kerinaiua —On leave.

Senator CROSSIN —You do need a permit to get from the airport to the town lease. It just depends where you are going. It is a complicated question.

Mr Kerinaiua —I think the land council have it.

Senator CROSSIN —So if I wanted to go to Milikapiti, for example, I would apply to the land council for a permit. Who would sign off on that?

Mr Kerinaiua —The official owners of it.

Senator CROSSIN —We were told yesterday—not recorded in Hansard but in a discussion—that certain members from the environment centre had never applied for a permit. One traditional owner told us that. But if there are seven other traditional owners they may well have applied for a permit to those other owners. Is that correct?

Mr Kerinaiua —Yes.

Mr Rioli —Can I come in there? How they mostly do it is that the trustee from each of the land groups signs permits—like my dad is a trustee for this area so he would be the person who would sign permits. Otherwise there could be 10 or 20 people signing permits and no-one would know what is going on. So my understanding is that mostly the person who can sign permits is the trustee from that area or the land council in Darwin. You can go into the land council office in Darwin and get a permit raised that way. They are the two ways people are supposed to be getting permits. But since all this confusion came in with the intervention and the removal of permits then, a lot of people do not bother getting permits now—they just come up because they feel that with the intervention the permit system has been removed. So yes, it is a worry.

Senator SIEWERT —I want to follow up on the issue of the native timbers that were logged and then shipped to Asia. We have been told previously through the estimates committee that the Tiwi Land Council made a loss of $600,000. Are either of you aware of that?

Mr Rioli —Yes. We were very concerned that there was no feasibility study done in regard to getting the logs off the island and into the best markets. None of that was done. They collected logs from the Munupi area. But in other areas where all of the rest of the land was cleared, apart from the Munupi land, do you know what they have done with all the native hardwoods from those next-door neighbours’ land? Because they could not get rid of the hardwoods from our area, they burnt all the native hardwoods and gave no opportunity to do anything to sell them—millions and millions of dollars of hardwood was just burnt and wasted. The only bits of hardwood they have are the ones they have got currently stacked up at Port Melville right now, the majority of which come from Munupi land. So yes, at least a feasibility study should have been done with regard to getting those native logs off the island and into the markets.

Mr Kerinaiua —On that question, I was not aware that Great Southern lost $600,000 or more—

Senator SIEWERT —It was the land council.

Mr Kerinaiua —Yes, the land council. I was not aware of that. Those sorts of things do not go out to the people. They keep it in the dark. They will not tell people what is going on.

Senator SIEWERT —Mr Rioli, you said that you did know about it. How did you find out about it?

Mr Rioli —There was a Senate inquiry last year, I think, that John was interviewed on, or an interview on radio, with regard to the logs. He was grilled by a couple of the senators or politicians in Canberra with regard to the operations and that it could be a tax minimisation scheme and all that.

Senator SIEWERT —Do you understand who now bears the loss for that $600,000? As we understand it from the answer to the questions to the Tiwi Land Council, that council bears the loss. But do all the landowner groups bear the loss or is it the landowner groups where the timber came from who bear the loss? Has it been explained?

Mr Rioli —I heard on that interview on the radio that the Great Southern company took the brunt of the loss.

Senator SIEWERT —Great Southern bore the loss?

Mr Rioli —This is what John was saying on the radio in that same interview that apparently it was Great Southern’s pain.

Senator SIEWERT —I will have to check the estimates, because I understood that it was the Tiwi Land Council that bore the loss.

Mr Rioli —It would be a shame if that was the case and John was going on radio and saying something completely different.

Senator SIEWERT —I could have misinterpreted it. I was actually there at the estimates, but I could have misinterpreted what he said and I could now be misinterpreting Hansard, but I understood that the Tiwi Land Council bore the loss. I asked yesterday how the land council had explained it to the community, and he did not at that stage explain that it was Great Southern and not the Tiwi Land Council that had borne the loss.

Mr Rioli —My memory could be a little bit wrong there, but that is what I seem to recall. Do you remember the name of the senator actually questioning him?

Senator SIEWERT —There were a number of us questioning at estimates. Senator Crossin, Senator Abetz and I were all asking questions, so to tell you the truth I cannot remember who asked the specific question.

Mr Rioli —Someone did actually ask that specific question about who wore the pain for that and I thought John said it was Great Southern. Maybe my memory is not that good, but that is what I seem to recall, but who knows?

Senator SIEWERT —I will follow that one up with both Great Southern and with the Tiwi Land Council. In terms of the royalties or rent that is paid, I understand that it has only gone up fairly recently to $20?

Mr Rioli —Wow, $20.

Senator SIEWERT —Is that your understanding?

Mr Rioli —Yes, I actually questioned the land council management in regard to that because the Munupi mob had renegotiations for the lease last year. We were getting paid $17 last year. Apparently they went ahead and had a meeting in July last year and signed off on this new $20 fee. My concern there was that a lot of other traditional owners were away; the traditional owners from that area should have been involved in the process of that decision making. Basically, how can they—only a couple of them—sign off on important issues like that, renegotiations for the land and the $20 fee? All of the traditional owners should have been involved in the negotiations—they were renegotiations, and we did not get the opportunity at all to have our case heard.

We are talking to people around Australia that are currently leasing land—farmers and so on. We were talking to the environmental centre in town that told us we should be getting 10 times the current payment. When we talk about renegotiations, both parties should be trying to get the best possible price for their organisation or for their people, not to just sign up for what has been put on the table which seems to be a great move for the land council. What is wrong with trying to get the best possible deal for your people and negotiating?

Senator SIEWERT —Before it was $17 and then $20, what was it prior to that?

Mr Rioli —It was $16 I think.

Senator SIEWERT —It has been reported to us at some stage that it was $3. When was that?

Mr Rioli —It started off at $3 I think—I am not sure. This was when we first started, but I really cannot remember that far back. I am just going on from the last three years, when it was $16, went up to $17 and this third year we have now signed off at $20 a hectare.

Senator SIEWERT —Senator Crossin touched on this before—that $18 goes to Tiwi Resources or to the landowners and $2 goes into the education fund.

Mr Rioli —Yes.

Senator McEWEN —I just want to ask Mr Rioli where the forestry is located in the Munupi lands. Mr Rioli, most of the forestry is concentrated on your traditional land ownership area and, judging from the map, that is also where a lot of people live. Is there any correlation between the area where the forestry is and the value of the hunting grounds there? Was that good hunting ground where they have taken away the native forest and planted the acacia?

Mr Rioli —Yes, a lot of it is near good hunting grounds. On the way to Rangini, where they have planted trees, there are hunting grounds there. Towards the north-west tip of Melville Island is all good hunting ground and around Wula Wunga—there is forestry right in there amongst all those hunting places. We actually thought that one of the advantages of forestry would be that because they were going to clear so much land that would help to have new roads to access areas that we have never been to for a lot of years. But that never ever happened.

Senator McEWEN —Yesterday we were told that the roads that had been built because of the forestry plantations had opened up access to your people. Is that not right?

Mr Rioli —No, all they did was make the roads that were already there into wider roads for the sake of their vehicles and their stuff, but they have not really done much. Could you name one place where they have pushed a road through and opened a new fishing ground or hunting ground to us, or one that we used to go to 20 or 30 years ago? I cannot think off the top of my head of one place they have opened up. Like I said, they have made the current bush tracks a lot wider, but as for actually going to new places or places that we have not been to for years, I do not think so.

Mr Kerinaiua —To go back to the start, I said on behalf of my people that we want to know where the money is going and how it is distributed, and at the moment we are not getting that. Like Manyi said, three years ago we came to town to get some advice and we went and saw one of the workers, and he said that we should be getting 10 times more wages than they were giving us. I still feel it is peanut money and it will not benefit my people. And no-one is brave enough to come and talk to guys like you and give you some feedback on things that are happening over here. I just thank you for having me here.

Senator SIEWERT —We have had conflicting evidence about how much the company paid for the roads and how much was paid for by the funds. On Monday we were told the government had contributed some money to the roads, or had subsidised some of the roads. What I have subsequently heard is that it may not be the government—and we have to track this down—but that it may have been ABA funds were put in. Some people call that government funding, or at least outside funding—

Senator CROSSIN —There might have been substantial Northern Territory government funding as well.

Senator SIEWERT —Are either of you aware whether there was any outside funding other than company money that went into the roads?

Mr Kerinaiua —No, not at all. When I was in the land council, they were talking about getting funding from the government for bitumen. At the moment it is very hard because those big trucks going in and out to get those timbers and take them to the port is causing a lot of havoc there. It is making the roads softer.  When the wet season comes around it is very hard to get to the other side to Paru—which is on Melville Island—to go to Bathurst Island. It is very hard to get to Milikapiti or to Picka. So that is the question I was asking the land council—where are we getting the money from to get this bitumen going? They have promised that; the land council promised to build a bitumen road for the last three or four years now and it has not eventuated. It is going to be hard for people to travel to other communities.

Senator SIEWERT —Mr Rioli, are you aware of what the funding situation is?

Mr Rioli —We have been arguing with Great Southern for a while now. I know that they have made their own roads into the plantations as they have opened up and cleared different areas, but there is the main road between here and Paru and Milikapiti. I do not believe that they have committed any money to the roads—I could be wrong, but I know we have been chasing them with regard to some kind of contribution to the roads, for some kind of roads agreement. A lot of people on the island felt that the company’s big heavy machinery was causing a lot of the damage to the roads. Great Southern believed that we were actually getting funded from the NT government and the Commonwealth government for maintaining those roads. So they believed that the government money that was being put in there was for them and them only. And we were saying, ‘Hang on a minute, that money the government puts in is not to do up the whole road but just to do grades and keep it up to some kind of decent road.  It was not designed for heavy machinery like you are putting through here now.’ I know that for years we have been trying to get them to contribute something towards the roads. We believe, as Adam was saying, one of the carrots dangled in front of us, when they were talking about introducing forestry to Melville, was a sealed road. Now nobody wants to talk about that. You know another company, Sylvatech, came along which is Great Southern Plantations, and everyone has forgotten about it. But we are saying that they should be worried about their interests—their big machinery, their big trucks, all their vehicles that drive up and down the roads. So we are saying that it is in their best interests to contribute something to the roads too to keep their vehicles maintained and up to scratch. But no, to this day I still do not believe that they are contributing anything to the roads. I could be wrong—they could have come up with something in the last year but as far as I know we have never been able to get them to commit to it.

CHAIR —Thank you, Mr Rioli and Mr Kerinaiua. Thank you both very much for your time this morning.

[10.55 am]