protest action, 19th January, 1999
Image: © J B O’Carroll
Precious Than Gold
Out of the mists of time, Aboriginal tradition holds Timbarra sacred.
Initiation ceremonies, lasting two years, passed down the coast, turning
inland for months of ritual ascent towards their climax on the Timbarra
plateau, a spectacular natural wonder on the Great Dividing Range 27
kilometres south east of Tenterfield.
After taking cedar and gold, early white settlers left the Timbarra
River catchment and plateau in near pristine condition. Now, with modern
technology and big capital, gold is again worth getting. Brisbane-based
Ross Mining has approval for two open cut mines. From June 1997 they’ll
spend $15 million blasting the sacred mountain, grabbing granite with
excavators, hauling it on dusty roads to be crushed and piled in heaps
25 metres high, covering 90 acres, sprayed with deadly cyanide solution.
Each year they’ll use 700 tonnes of sodium cyanide, 75 tonnes
of caustic soda and 60 tonnes of hydrochloric acid to extract 50,000
ounces of gold, worth $20 million a year, already sold on the futures
market. Who can resist such persuasive sums?
The company can’t guarantee no leakage of lethal poisons through
plastic sheets, only 1.5 mm thick. Liable to overflow in heavy rain,
they’re to be situated in wetlands, draining into underground
water and creeks, feeding the Timbarra and Clarence River. Agriculture
and fisheries as far as Yamba on the coast and beyond could be affected.
A pipeline corridor seven kilometres long and 30 metres wide will bring
2.5 million litres of water a day from the Timbarra River, up to a third
of its flow, affecting habitats and users downstream.
The Timbarra area encompasses six eco systems, ranging from dry heath
forests to warm temperate rainforests, home to two endangered species,
the Hastings River Mouse and Brush Tailed Wallaby, fourteen threatened
or vulnerable wild life species, including the Stuttering Frog, Glossy
Black Cockatoo, Sooty Owl, Tiger Quoll and Parma Wallaby and five flora
species of conservation significance, four of which would be threatened
When I visited the site in 1993, Uncle Eric Walker, Bundjalung elder
and custodian of the Timbarra plateau, performed a secret ritual. Immediately
the sky darkened. Lightening flashed. Thunder boomed. The heavens opened
in torrential rain, then, as suddenly, stopped.
“What more do you need to see?” asked the Aborigines, who
for untold thousands of years performed sacred duties to the land. “What
sort of buffer zone do you want around your sacred site?” asked
the company man. “We’ll erect a cyclone fence around the
mountain top. Let’s say 100 metres, 200 metres. What would satisfy
you?” “The whole mountain is sacred”, replied Uncle
Devastated by white settlement, disorganised, understandably demoralised,
Aborigines are divided amongst themselves. With traditional ways and
values, some honour the land as themselves. Others, alienated like most
whites, want royalties from mining.
Will the retired and redundant reclaim their lives, as elders, directing
wisdom against outmoded norms? Will hippies sing in front of bulldozers,
to save Timbarra as they saved Terania Creek? Will earth-coloured ferals
blockade this natural wonder?
Wilson, eco-activist, Nimbin, 1997
native title claimants and environmentalists were vindicated about the
shortcomings of the Timbarra Gold Mine when the cyanide pond system
overflowed in 2001, this was not a victory. The mine was also a social
tragedy for everybody concerned, with 80 hectares of an Aboriginal sacred
site and prime native habitat destroyed for a gold mine that was an
economic failure - closed after only 6 months of operation. The legacy
of environmental campaigning created public pressure to ensure that
mine rehabilitation was of the highest quality.
However, it will take many decades for old growth trees to re-establish
and the vegetation types will never be like the original bush. The open
wound on the landscape means that there will be an on-going battle against
invasive weeds until a bush canopy closes up the wound. And even then,
the scar tissue will never be the same as real skin.
Hardwick, Environmental stakeholders representative,
Timbarra rehabilitation project, 2009