Canberra — Aborigines on a cattle ranch in a remote part of north- western Australia are preparing for what is likely to prove an unsuccessful battle over their sacred sites.
Lined up against them are the Western Australian state government, the federal government, and the US-owned Amax iron-ore corporation bent on diamond mining and drilling for oil. The Aborigines claim these lands are spiritual grounds that must not be disturbed.
The issue is complicated because mining and mineral rights are held by the crown. Aborigines have only a pastoral lease over the huge Noonkanbah ranch, but they have one more thing going for them -- the Aboriginal Heritage Act, which is meant to protect sacred sites.
Underlying the conflict is the problem that much of what the Aborigines hold sacred is beneath the ground. Western Australian Premier Sir Charles Court say this means that what the Aborigines are claiming is not protection of sacred sites, but land rights. He says he simply won't concede them.
Aborigines oppose both mining and drilling operations, but diamond mining looms as the larger issue. Geologists are convinced Lake Argyle could hold at least $4 billion worth of valuable gems. They are less certain about the prospects of finding oil at Noonkanbah.
Dickie Skinner, chairman of the Yungngera Aborigine community, gives his people's explanation of the sacred nature of the land:
"I have been given permission to tell you that a sacred story concerns the goanna that lived under the hill. The goanna's spirit will be disturbed by drilling. Our people are disturbed that if the spirit of the goanna is disturbed the next season will not replenish the goanna stocks at Noonkanbah."
Last March, Aborigines successfully persuaded the work- men to stop an Amax drilling project, despite police presence and support from the state government. Since then, the state premier has made it clear the state government insists that drilling be resumed. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has also said he believes drilling should "not be impeded."
The government has decided to take control of an access road to the drilling site. And it plans to increase the exploration area from two to four hectares for a "safety margin."
Western Australia is taking another firm step by seeking nonunion transport to move the drilling rig and 50 truckloads of equipment to the site because of a trade union drilling ban.
Aborigines are not expected to use force against the equipment convoy, but it is clear they will show their opposition.
Police will meet the rig in Noonkanbah. Traffic laws may be enforced against anyone standing in the way.