Books

Paul Cleary
Title Fight: How the Yindjibarndi Battled and Defeated a Mining Giant

“I do not feel or see myself as something that is separate and different from Yindjibarndi Country,” Michael Woodley told the Federal Court in 2017, “because my spirit comes from my Country and is always connected to it.”

Woodley, chief executive of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), was speaking after a 13-year legal battle against Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), which is owned by Andrew Forrest, Australia’s richest man. Woodley’s words summed up this struggle. Aboriginal people first settled in the Pilbara region 50,000 years ago, but the mining giant argued that the Yindjibarndi should not be granted exclusive possession of their country as “occupation [had] ceased”.

FMG, which stood to make $5 billion a year from the Solomon hub, believed it had the right to dig up this historic land in exchange for paying the Yindjibarndi an unindexed annual royalty of just $3 million.

Title Fight is a David and Goliath story of how a First Nations community defeated FMG. But in exploring FMG’s pursuit of automation and its poor safety record, journalist Paul Cleary has also written a tale of modern capitalism, with lessons for ordinary citizens across the world.

The cacophony of acronyms and jargon in this book can be offputting, but it’s a reminder of how often corporate giants seek to baffle Indigenous communities with impenetrable language and legalese. Cleary also makes a real effort to understand and explain the logic behind Yindjibarndi laws and customs, challenging anyone who assumes the supremacy of settler law.

The YAC was not only fighting a multibillion-dollar business on a shoestring budget but was up against a classic divide-and-rule project. Cleary forensically traces the funding of a rival title right organisation to FMG. The Wirlu-Murra Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation sought to get the YAC disbanded and struck off the Native Title application and FMG bankrolled $400 Woolworths vouchers to residents who turned up to vote at one of its meetings.

This strategic factional fight not only prolonged the Yindjibarndi’s victory but cut deep wounds into a community already struggling with alcoholism and extreme poverty.

There are obvious parallels with the strike-breaking Union of Democratic Mineworkers in 1980s Britain, whose leadership secretly met Margaret Thatcher to undermine the coalminers’ fight against pit closures. That dispute ended in failure for its underdogs, with communities left to pick up the pieces of a political war against organised labour.

But in Yindjibarndi Country a crumbling hotel in Roebourne, Western Australia, has been transformed by local workers into the Ganalili cultural and business centre. It is a symbol of Cleary’s primary message: that while money might always speak for money, it’s no match for a nation and its people.

Conrad Landin

Black Inc, 320pp, $32.99

Black Inc is a Schwartz company

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Title Fight: How the Yindjibarndi Battled and Defeated a Mining Giant, Paul Cleary".

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Reviewer: Conrad Landin