Gomeroi Ngaar, Bigan Ngaar (Gomeroi are strong when our Law is strong) | Polly Cutmore

Polly Cutmore addressing the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit 2024


“My job was simple, don’t sell our people out – because nothing is worth more than Us.”

Polly Cutmore addressed the Australia Institute’s Climate Integrity Summit on 20 March 2024.

Yaama my name is Maria ‘Polly’ Cutmore

When I was representing my people at the Native Title table, I was really representing my family and clan, the Coombri tribe from Dhirri-eye-eye – which means Terry Hie Hie in English, that’s an area between the Gwydir River and Mt Kaputar, in northern NSW.  This was a refuge area for the Gomeroi people, my clan were the caretakers.

In 2016, I got elected as a Native Title applicant at the Nation meeting in Tamworth. On the condition that nothing was to be signed away without the nation’s consent. This was because the last applicants had done dirty deals with a mining company.

When I arrived back home in Moree, I let my family know.

My mother gave me a message which was clear: not to disgrace the family and ancestors, don’t go signing away country that does not belong to me and get the message back to the community and family.

Then my mother handed me a letter from Santos, she didn’t understand how her name was given to them. Then she found out that letters were going out to all local land council members. She was not happy with this and did not agree to having her name given to any company to tick their consultation box.

When I started with the Santos negotiations, I didn’t really know what was happening, or what the game was, but I learned my people didn’t know either.  The white system had kept them out of the picture and only a few privileged people, the RAP groups and a few selected Land Councils, had any idea.

It was hard at first going to the Santos meetings and the games they were playing. There wasn’t much room for our Law in the discussions.  Santos even claimed there was no biodiversity in the Pilliga and there was no impact on groundwater.  I also was shocked to find out there had been no gathering of knowledge and stories from elders or reporting of the cultural significance of the Pilliga. They never mentioned the Hairy Man, the guardian, so I made him the symbol of our fight.

They refused to give answers to questions, other times they slammed thick books on the table to read. They just kept coming back wanting us to sign. They wanted us to sign away our native title rights for a pittance, initially only $3 million over 20 years. It was insulting.

But I wasn’t there to sign anything away without the consent of my people.  We negotiated for 3 years and we didn’t sign anything, but we demanded more information and studies be done so we can inform our people. These studies never got done and so I produced my own booklet to tell my people.

I also was dealing with a group of some applicants who wanted to sign, telling me that resistance To Santos was useless and they were too powerful.  But I put my faith in my people and pushed for the decision to be taken back to the Nation.  I put pressure on all the other applicants by getting the information out and asking Gomeroi to call their applicants who represented them.

The decision went to a Nation meeting in 2022 and our people voted down the Santos offer.  I knew no one could take that from us. But Santos and the Tribunal tried.

Santos took us to the Tribunal and despite our best efforts, the decision went against us, taking away our native title rights without any compensation at all.  The President of the Tribunal did not recognise the Nation vote, at one point ordered us back to mediation, so Santos sent in their big gun, Tracey Winters who just tried to intimidate us. She told us that Santos had a huge footprint across Australia, but I reminded her that my footprint was bigger, First Nation footprint covers the entire country. Mediation went nowhere and I had the government reps in tears after pointing out how they continue to break our law and treat us with disrespect.

I knew if we appealed to the federal court, we would have a better chance and more people would take notice of our fight.  And so, on 7th March this year the court upheld our appeal on grounds the Tribunal had not considered the public interest.  The court ruled the Tribunal did not think climate change was an issue which affected us.

But it does.

First Nation people are greatly impacted by climate change as it will disrupt our food systems and the natural balance.  We have lived through ice ages; we know what changes is.  This is why Santos would be a disaster for our Country, it will affect the air, the land, and the waters, because this time, it is man-made.

Our groundwater is too precious to interfere with and Santos wanted to pump poison into it. No, they don’t, and it stops here for us.

The Federal court decision may have implications for future cases about native title and climate change and that is a good outcome for everyone.

But the Future Acts of Native Title are disrespectful to our people by giving the companies the right to negotiate without giving us a right to veto.  Forcing us to the table without respecting our traditional ways of engaging, the white law on these things need to change.

I know you educated people here know this, but there are two laws in our Country.  Your law and our law.  Our law is ‘Bigan’ in Gamilaroi, it has been here since we been here. It come from our Mummy and defines our relationships and responsibilities to each other and to Mother Earth.

Here is a couple more quick ideas.

Custodianship – passing on country to the next generations in a healthy state. Aren’t our children a part of us and we a part of our grandparents? I believe you white people call this ‘inter-generational equity’!

Protection – protect the families that live on the land because the people look after the land and the land looks after the people. You can’t have one without the other.

My family are a Strong family grounded in our traditions and stories.  I was taught that you listened to your Elders and the Ancestors.  So, my job was simple, don’t sell our people out – because nothing is worth more than Us.  That was what Mummy told me.  Nothing was worth more than Us, our family and our Ancestors and their memory.

That was also my old Grandfather’s mission – in the face of colonialism and genocide, to preserve the family at all costs.  Because he protected his family, that is the reason why I am here today.

Polly Cutmore, Gamilaraay/Wirri/Anaiwan Elder and Traditional Owner at the Climate Integrity Summit 2024

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