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Coal Mine Threatens Opera House

By Steve Trotter

Posted on 21st December 2023

50 Year Old Site to be Destroyed for Coalmine

The Fèihuà Chinese Corporation is set to raze the Sydney Opera House to build a sprawling open cut coalmine in Sydney’s CBD after winning a landmark court case that granted the Chinese owned corporation the ability to access the minerals beneath the soil.

It’s the first time a company has successfully invoked the NSW Mines Resource Act to gain access to a significant modern Australian site. The Act, which is often invoked in rural Australia, states that the Crown owns all minerals beneath the subsurface and can grant a company the right to mine beneath a property if it is found that the claimant can establish that the value of the minerals to the community outweighs the value of the structure itself.


‘They’re not breaking the law,’ said John Furphy, the barrister representing the Fèihuà Chinese Corporation. ‘The Crown is legally entitled to grant exploratory or mining licences to mining companies, so they can explore or extract sub-surface minerals. They do it all the time. And it’s not like we’re gonna lose the Opera House altogether. Plans are underway already to relocate it to a lovely site in Penrith.’

The Sydney Arts community is reeling from the news. ‘I can’t believe it’s happening, but what can we do? The government is backing it. Profits are just more important than culture,’ said Ima Lyah, a spokesperson for the NSW Arts Council.

The open cut coalmine is expected to be approximately 1-5 kms in diameter and may see more of Sydney’s CBD be impacted in the deal between the Australian government and The Fèihuà Chinese Corporation.

CREDIT: Free  backgrounds from pikbest.com” data-wplink-url-error=”true”>Pikbest

Outraged? I hope so.

Of course, it’s a load of nonsense, but imagine if it wasn’t? And we’re talking about a structure that’s only 50 years old.

When I began writing this piece, in 2020, Rio Tinto, the American mining giant, had just obliterated another priceless Aboriginal site, this time in Western Australia. With the approval of the state government. (Actually, Rio Tinto destroyed TWO 46,000-year-old sites in Juukan Gorge in the Pilbarra region). Just blew them up. Rio Tinto was doing some exploratory mining hoping to make a few bucks. They didn’t find any minerals. 46,000 years of history was obliterated in an instant and no-one even blinked.

To say that these sites were culturally and historically priceless to the Pintenjara mob is an understatement; but, the sites should be priceless to every Australian and to every human across the world. If you look at human history, no sites are as ancient. Save some sites in Africa when the first homo sapiens walked the earth. They were part of our collective history as a species and we allowed them to be destroyed.

Credit: Quora

As Australians, we seem to have difficulty recognising the contributions of the Aboriginal people to our collective history. It must be some sort of whacked cultural bias left over from our Imperialistic heritage.

We can only value things that have been written about in British textbooks. Like the Sydney Opera house, built 60 years ago, the Eiffel Tower, built 113 years ago, or the Egyptian Pyramids, built 5000 years ago. They’re in the history books, right, so they matter?

When you compare the British version of history to the Aboriginal version of history, it really does pale in comparison. You know, if put both our histories side by side on a soccer field the Western timeline of history would be lucky to reach the little goal box while the Aboriginal timeline of history would end up past the dead ball line, at the other end of the field. Yet, somehow, the British version of history is more important and superior to this ancient Aboriginal timeline.

CREDIT: Wantima

No human artefacts have been found in Egypt, Greece or Rome that come close to the age of the artefacts uncovered at the Juukan gorge site. Period. Somehow, the Australian State and Federal governments deemed the destruction of this incredibly significant site (to all human history) as an acceptable loss for all of us.

I have been an English teacher for more than 20 years but I’m also a history teacher.

The history of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, in the books that are taught in schools, is incomplete. Written by the victors, they only present us with a colonialist perspective of Australia. The problem with this version of the history of Australia is that the historians who wrote it have written it from the perspective of white colonialists.

Much has been left out, misinterpreted or has been completely ignored because the version does not fit the British narrative of Australian history. The historical accounts are either biased or based very much on the ignorance of the writer.

The other problem with our understanding of Indigenous history is that we attempt to view it as we view our own history in the West. In the West, we understand the past as a timeline of events that occurred in chronological order, events based on conquests, powerful people and advancements in technology. We view history as a sequence, where one era rolls into the next; but this Western interpretation of Indigenous history really doesn’t sit well on a timeline. It is like trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The Aboriginal world was, and is, alien to us.

CREDIT: ‘Spirits of the Dreamtime’ by Maree Bradbury

Indigenous culture, before the first settlement, existed in a timeless state. It cannot be compartmentalised it into ages and eras. And, our attempt to understand and translate it into a graspable concept is reductionist. Academics tried to label the Aboriginal concept of the past by giving it an English term calling it, ‘the Dreamtime’. Ironically, this term is problematic in itself. ‘Dreamtime’ is not a noun, but a verb. I think whichever scholar coined the term thought it was something that happened in the past. The Dreaming is more like a singularity occurring in the present than a point embedded in the past. The Dreaming is like a practice and a place captured in one term. If you do the practice in the same place as the people before you, then there is no series of unlike events, there is just a repetition of now.

The Dreaming is not a collection of mythological stories, it’s a set of practices or a way of living. They include the practices of singing, dancing, painting, preparing food, hunting, farming, travelling, initiation and every aspect of the Aboriginal peoples’ daily routines. These practices are Buddhist-like in that they strip away the past and future and ground the person immersed in the practice very much in the present. These practices reinforce a person’s connection to the land through a celebration of the connection to one’s ancestors who also lived upon it. Each practice represents the deep respect shown to the land and the life it gives to the animals and people passing over it.

Through this way of living, every generation is connected to the generations before and the generations to come. The continuation of the practices reinforces a deep intergenerational connection that converges the past, present and future into one time: the singularity. These practices were a major contributing factor to the enormous longevity of Indigenous history, culture and its people in Australia before the British invasion.

In a time when we feel increasingly disconnected from our forebears and our culture we shun our priceless connection to our Aboriginal people and their heritage. No other country can boast that connection. We have the oldest living civilisation in our country. Yet, we refuse to acknowledge Aboriginal people in our constitution and turn our back on our shared history.

Why do we give every other marginalised group a fair go, but not Aboriginal people? Is it that our prejudice or our shame is just too deep?

In Australia, we have access to a civilisation that has lived harmoniously on this planet for more than 65,000 years, so why are we so hell-bent on disregarding it and erasing it?

We must help to protect Indigenous cultural history and to preserve it. At all costs. The contribution Indigenous Australians have made to our combined history and can make to our future is beyond value. But their cultural history is in danger of disappearing.

I hear stories all the time of sites being destroyed and knowledge being lost: housing estates built on massacre sites or Indigenous graveyards; highways bulldozed through huge depositories of artefacts; ancient middens excavated for road base or land drainage; thousand year old rock structures dismantled to build a farmer’s fence (which, ironically, becomes heritage listed because it’s 150 years old). Every act of vandalism destroys another invaluable record of our collective existence as humans.

Black Head was the site of massacre of the local Nyangbal people. The rocks were deemed more valuable than the significance of the site to the Aboriginal people.

The age of governments, developers and corporations eating up this country must come to an end. Mining companies and the Federal, State and local governments must be held accountable for the destruction of our historical sites, sites that are significant to the Indigenous people of this land, but also to us as a species.

The spokespeople for the WA government spruik that the decision to allow Rio Tinto to destroy the Juukan Gorge sites was made long ago, and the decision could not be reversed. Ironically, that same government changed a law OVERNIGHT to prevent Clive Palmer from suing them after they decided to block Palmer from selling his iron ore mine to the Chinese.

If the State government can change a law to preserve the interests of the state, surely it can change a law to preserve the historical interests of all humanity? Our leaders have got to do better.

As I wrote earlier, Indigenous culture is kept alive through rituals and practices that connect its people to the land; if the sites where they are practised are destroyed or the practices are discontinued then that historical evidence is destroyed with it.

Our attitude to Indigenous people and their culture must change, not only for humanitarian and historical reasons for Indigenous Australians, but for what Aboriginal culture can reveal to us about us as a species.

Want to Know More About Aboriginal Culture?

If you or your children would like to know more about Aboriginal history and culture, check out Magpie Publishers’ bookstore. There you will find stories that celebrate our First Nations’ People and detail the impact of colonization on Aboriginal people, the environment, and their culture. 


Walk on Country

How about a tour? If you want to learn about a deeper time history of Ballina, why not arrange a tour of the Nyangbal people’s country? Eli Cook, and the other Nyangbal custodians, will guide you through their country, share their culture with you and tell you about their history, in person. 

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of Australia and honour the Elders past and present.

© Steve Trotter 2023

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