Traditional owners are preparing a legal battle with mining giant Fortescue Metals Group over royalty payments in WA. 

In 2020, the Federal Court ruled that the Yindjibarndi had “exclusive possession” of their land in WA’s Pilbara region. 

Traditional owners sought to negotiate an Indigenous Land Use Agreement with Fortescue Metals Group (FMG), but this fell through last year. The Yindjibarndi have now returned to the Federal Court to ask for a ruling on compensation.

The court action could see FMG ordered to pay millions of dollars in compensation for mining on traditional owners’ land without an agreement. 

Chief executive of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation - Michael Woodley - says it could be a landmark case for the principle of free, prior and informed consent. 

“I'm looking forward to the process now of having to tell our story in a court of law, in terms of what liability rests with those responsible for mining on our country without having an Indigenous land use agreement,” Mr Woodley has told reporters. 

“A mining company coming into our country, not doing the right thing, not being respectful, refused to acknowledge native title rights and laws, and don't want to do an agreement based on what we consider to be industry standards.”

The National Native Title Tribunal, an independent government agency, has called for traditional owners to register their interest in taking part in a native title compensation claim 

The court is expected to determine whether the community is eligible for “compensation for the loss, impairment, diminution or extinguishment of native title rights and interests in the area”, according to the tribunal. 

Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, who owns more than one third of FMG, says the company does not want to pay the Yindjibarndi people “mining welfare”. 

He says the company is more focused on providing education, training and employment for Indigenous people, and contracts for Aboriginal firms. 

“I don't sustain relationships which are just all about handing over buckets of money,” Mr Forrest said last year.

“I have seen how that destroyed Indigenous communities. I've seen how it's destroyed communities all over the world. And I don't want to be responsible for it, just to solve a native title clearance problem for my company.”

Lawyer James Fitzgerald - who negotiated native title deals for traditional owners in Western Australia with Rio Tinto and with Woodside Petroleum - has accused FMG of taking on a “paternalistic” role in its dealing with traditional owners, saying the company is applying “a view from the 19th century” that “Aboriginal people are not entitled to benefit from the land that's being used by others”, and that “Aboriginal people can't be trusted to manage money”.