Oil Firm Works With Aborigines

At the same time voices rise over the difficult issue of Aboriginal land rights, Chevron Corp. has signed an historic agreement with Aboriginal landowners for a 1,600-mile natural gas pipeline to cross their traditional lands.

The $1.5 billion project would involve building a pipeline from the Kutubu oil field in the neighboring island country of Papua New Guinea under the Torres Strait to Australia's Cape York Peninsula. From there it could be sold to clients all over eastern Australia, where two-thirds of the population lives.

"This agreement, which has involved numerous traditional owner groups from the tip of Cape York right down through northern and central Queensland [state], shows that Aboriginal people are not opposed to development," says Aboriginal leader Norman Johnson.

"If companies show respect like Chevron has, then native title will work," adds Mr. Johnson, who was appointed to negotiate the deal by the Cape York Land Council, which represents about 12,000 Aborigines.

"We've bridged a gap between matters commercial and matters spiritual," adds John Powell, the project director for Chevron. "We've bridged a gap between black fella and white fella, and how have we done that? We've done it in an environment of respect with honesty and firm negotiation."

The agreement provides for Aboriginal landowners to have first rights to buy equity in the pipeline project. It would be the first such equity arrangement in Australia, according to Gerhardt Pearson, another Aboriginal leader involved in the negotiations with Chevron.

"It's clear that this is the way of the future, that this is what Aboriginal people are expecting," Mr. Pearson says. "They don't just want short-term compensation. Equity ensures long-term and real benefits coming back to their communities."

The amount that Aboriginal groups could invest in the pipeline company would be "much higher" than the undisclosed amount of compensation to be paid to Aboriginal landowners under the agreement with Chevron, he said.

Chevron already has committed about $17 million for feasibility and environmental-impact studies for the project.

The agreement also provides for "cultural heritage" surveys of the land the pipeline would pass through.

These would identify areas of cultural or spiritual significance to Aborigines in need of protection, such as a burial ground, rock art site, or other sacred site.

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