The wait for the land use agreement for White Cliffs residents has been frustrating for some. (ABC Rural: Amy Spear)
In the outback opal mining town of White Cliffs in far-west New South Wales, people live and work underground in dugout homes and businesses to escape the scorching temperatures above ground.
But for the past two years, half of the town’s dugout owners have been unable to buy, sell, or renovate their dugouts while negotiations continue over a new land use agreement.
The dugouts are held via licences through the NSW Department of Industry, but in September 2016 about half the residents and business owners in the town were told their licences had been cancelled as a result of a native title claim.
Dick Wagner, who owns one of the affected dugout businesses, said a lack of communication from the department was causing uncertainty in the community.
“The information is a bit sparse at the moment,” he said.
“They’re running around like headless chooks. We’ve no confidence at all that they’ll ever resolve the issue.”
To escape the searing outback heat, many White Cliffs locals live underground, where the temperature hovers about 22 degrees. (ABC News: Declan Gooch)
Barkindji Native Title Aboriginal Corporation chairman Gerald Quayle said it was important the land use agreement was properly negotiated.
“The only thing that’s going to fix the problem of those past injustices to Aboriginal people is where we could sit down at the table and negotiate with the very organisation [the government] that did those past injustices,” Mr Quayle said.
He said he was confident White Cliffs residents would be satisfied with the outcome of negotiations with the Department of Industry.
“Negotiations went well and hopefully the people of White Cliffs will get some good news soon,” Mr Quayle said.
White Cliffs opal miner Dick Wagner, in his underground jewellery showroom. (ABC News: Declan Gooch)
Licence holders have been able to continue living in the dugouts while negotiations were underway, but they have been unable transfer licences or be issued new ones, making it difficult to buy, sell, or renovate.
Mr Wagner said the wait was frustrating.
“People have spent mega-thousands of dollars and they’re not allowed to do anything because they can’t get the surety they’ll get their licences reinstated,” he said.
The Department of Industry said in February it was hopeful it would be able to issue short-term, five-year licences within 12 months.
‘We know what it’s like to have nothing’
Mr Quayle said he could understand the frustrations of White Cliffs residents.
“We know what it’s like to be pushed from pillar to post as Aboriginal people. We know what it’s like to have things snatched away from you at the stroke of a pen,” he said.
Mr Quayle said he was happy to speak to any dugout owners who were concerned about the impact of the native title claim on their licences.
“We’re willing to sit down and talk about it and see if we could come to an agreement, or a consensus that would benefit everyone,” he said.
“We know what it’s like to have nothing.
“If they’ve got licences and they paid for them it’s not up to us to try and take those away from them.
“It’s how we treat each other, we treat each other with respect, we talk to each other, we sit down at the table and see how we can help each other.
“As far as I’m concerned, we’ve come to a decision that’s beneficial to the people of White Cliffs.”
‘We’re in the same boat’
Mr Wagner said White Cliffs residents understood the hold-up in a decision about the future of licences lay with the State Government and not the Barkindji Native Title group.
“We understand it’s not the Barkindji people,” he said.
“This was something that was sort of thrust upon them and we don’t have an issue with the Barkindji people.
“We fully understand this it’s not their doing, we’re probably in the same boat, they’d like it resolved one way or another.”
Mr Quayle said he was eager to have the issue resolved so the communities could continue living and working together without uncertainty.
“I’ve got family buried at the cemetery in White Cliffs, and my great-grandmother and great-grandfather got married in White Cliffs. I’ve got a long personal history related to White Cliffs,” he said.
“If we can sit down and talk to the people and tell them what our hope is for the future, not only for them but for us too as human beings, I’m sure they’ll realise that things can work out for the better.”