You are using an outdated browser. This website may not function correctly.
Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

The people living on Groote Eylandt, the crab-shaped island off the Northern Territory’s east coast, have been using manganese as the jet black background for rock art for thousands of years.

Anindilyakwa people call it “mamajinga” – black magic.

The people living on Groote Eylandt, the crab-shaped island off the Northern Territory’s east coast, have been using manganese as the jet black background for rock art for thousands of years.

Now they plan to make it work for them in a more dramatic way – to help safeguard their future.

The Anindilyakwa Land Council, through its Royalty Development team, is working towards opening a manganese mine on the small Akwamburrkba Island, formerly known as Winchelsea, which sits a mere 15-minute boat ride from Groote.

“It will create jobs, training and a sufficient volume of income to build a sustainable future for the Groote Traditional Owners,” says land council chief executive Mark Hewitt.

Land council chair Tony Wurramarrba says the story began in November 2016 when he joined the Chief Minister’s largest ever trade delegation to visit China.

He was the only Aboriginal Territorian to attend.

Six weeks later, in response to an invitation to do business in a range of areas, including aquaculture, renewable energy, tourism and mining, four business leaders from Shandong Province visited Groote.

“Personally it seems like I am just doing what my ancestors have done before me,” says Mr Wurramarrba.

For 500 years, Anindilyakwa people exported the highly prized beche- de-mer or sea cucumber through Maccassan traders – it reached buyers as far away as China well before European contact.

“It presents a situation that was never anticipated in the design of the Land Rights Act,” says Mr Wurramarrba.

“In this we will not just be passive royalty recipients from outside parties mining on our lands.

“We will instead be applying to the government to be joint venture partners with investors and the majority owners of our own mine.
We will be in business with a potential world-class resource of great value to invest in our sustainable future when mining is gone.”

The land council has bought up numerous mining exploration licences and devised a careful, long-term economic plan around opening a new mine.

Global resources company South32, which operates the huge Gemco manganese mine on Groote, is by far the largest contributor of mining royalties paid to the NT Government Royalties paid directly to Groote Traditional Owners is spent on a wide range of Indigenous social and job-creation programs on the island, which is home to 2000 people from 14 clans.

“Royalties are used for critical infrastructure, such as roads and tracks to country, sport and recreation, and education,” says Mr Hewitt.

The money also supports two large programs:

  • Community Support Program: this helps people in their day-to-day living.
  • Preserving Culture: this uses radio, film, men and women’s art, a language centre and a men’s shed to maintain Anindilyakwa culture.

But South32 is scheduled to cease mining in about 12 years.

“Royalties will stop, so we have to find another source of income,” says Mr Hewitt. “But Groote has enough resources to set people up for the future.”

A mining Future Fund has been set up and now holds about $200 million – but accountants say it must be built up to $550 million so the interest can be used to keep important programs going when mining royalties come to an end.

“So we have to put an additional $350 million into that account over the next 12 years,” says Mr Hewitt.

The land council has formed a new company, Anindilyakwa Advancement Aboriginal Corporation, which through a joint venture with a Chinese investor, Aus-China Pty Ltd, is undertaking a $7 million mining exploration program.

The JV is registered as Winchelsea Mining Pty Ltd.

Twelve Traditional Owners of Akwamburrkba are working on the venture, including running an inter- island boat service for contracting civil works, drilling and geological crew.