Elders seek control of caves

Warren HatelyBusselton Dunsborough Times

Wadandi elders unhappy about management of the region’s sacred cave network have called for cave assets to go into Aboriginal hands to help with reconciliation and give local Noongars economic independence.

Elder Bill Webb said long-running concerns about the impact of tourism on sacred sites — including criticism of the Margaret River-Busselton Tourism Association’s redevelopment of Mammoth Cave — had triggered the call for the vested caves to be returned to traditional custodians.

But tourism stakeholders, local politicians and some other Noongars say the discussion should have been held before last year’s native title settlement, which transferred other land parcels to the South West Boojarah tribal group.

MRBTA chief executive Claire Savage said her not-for-profit association ran four of the six caves open to visitors across the Capes region, with the MRBTA’s vesting administered by the State Government via the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage.

Despite acknowledging some difficulties with Aboriginal consultation during the stalled Mammoth Cave redevelopment, Ms Savage said the MRBTA had “an excellent track record of caring for the caves and cave precincts under our management”, but declined moves to hand the caves to the Wadandi.

“We are very willing to work with local Wadandi people to encourage an understanding of cultural values and support Aboriginal tourism and employment,” she said.

Ms Savage detailed MRBTA staff training in cultural awareness, support for Josh Whiteland’s Aboriginal tour company at Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse, and backed other options to support regional employment for Capes Noongars.

With Nature Conservation Margaret River, the MRBTA is also working on its eco-tourism and Aboriginal heritage programs.

Mr Webb said the MRBTA was making revenue from the caves that should flow to traditional owners.

“These caves are some of the key spiritual sites,” he said.

“It’s about time they came to the negotiating table about financial benefits coming out of those caves.

“It is coming to the point where there needs to be a full negotiation.”

Bibelmen-Mia Aboriginal Corporation secretary Joel Chapman said the opportunity to negotiate ownership of the caves was lost because of the native title process. “When they signed off on native title they didn’t realise what they were relinquishing,” he said.

The Times has previously reported dissent within the traditional owner group, with some members including former Greens candidate Mitchella Hutchens saying the Federal settlement gave away too many rights for Aboriginal people.

Busselton Mayor Grant Henley also pointed to the established native title claim, and Margaret River-based Liberal MLC Steve Thomas was also against the Wadandi call.

“My view is, particularly (with) the caves, the State’s heavily invested in (them),” Mr Thomas said.

“They are an asset owned by everybody. They are certainly not in the (poor) condition they were in prior to European settlement.”

Shire president Pam Townshend said she “would like to see a community effort to work out inclusive decisions”.

Planning Minister Rita Saffioti was unable to respond to inquiries due to deadlines.

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