After years of planning and construction, the Wiradjuri Study Center opened its doors on September 27 in a formal ceremony attended by a number of dignitaries, including Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, the Honorable Kevin Rudd.
The Center’s opening is a major milestone in what has been no less than a cultural and economic renaissance for the Wiradjuri people living near Barrick’s Cowal mine in New South Wales.
Located in the town of Condobolin near Cowal, the Center will serve as a gathering place where the Wiradjuri can rediscover and share their rich cultural heritage, and work together with local Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people to develop a community driven by mutual respect and understanding.
The Center will offer activities about the Wiradjuri’s history and heritage, as well as skills training programs accredited by a number of local post-secondary institutions. The Center will also serve as a keeping place for a trove of Wiradjuri artifacts gathered around the Barrick Cowal mine, and it will house a wellness center to assist community members dealing with drug and alcohol addiction. In addition, the Center will contain conference and sports facilities and offer child care services for the local community.
“It’s going to be a place where we can implement the principles and practices of Aboriginal learning styles and teaching, and spread the rejuvenation of our culture,” says Percy Knight, CEO of the Wiradjuri Condobolin Corporation, a company that has helped spearhead the Wiradjuri’s socio-economic turnaround. “It’s also a center for reconciliation and social inclusion and a place where Wiradjuri people, young and old, can rediscover the Wiradjuri language. It is a place that will mean many different things to many different people on many different levels.”
The Wiradjuri are the traditional owners of the land on which the Cowal mine resides, and the largest Aboriginal group in New South Wales, with a history dating back more than 40,000 years. Forced off their traditional lands by European settlers in the 1800s, the Wiradjuri experienced a prolonged period of decline, and a once-proud culture was supplanted by what Knight describes as a “culture of embracing misery.”
The date things began changing for the better is etched in Knight’s memory. “April 15, 2003,” he says in reference to the day Barrick and the Wiradjuri signed a Native Title Agreement, triggering what Knight oft en refers to as a new beginning for the Wiradjuri people. “It’s like it happened yesterday.”
The Native Title Agreement includes provisions for preserving Wiradjuri cultural heritage and funding for skills development and jobs training. It led to the formation of the Wiradjuri Condobolin Corporation (WCC), which has successfully tendered for a number of contracts at the Cowal mine, including the vending machine, cleaning, and freight and logistics contracts.
The WCC, which employs 60 people, has also helped create a number of successful businesses not directly associated with Cowal, including a furniture and Aboriginal artifact shop in Condobolin, management of the Australia Post contract for Condobolin and a green waste composting business. In addition, the WCC, with the support of Barrick, is expanding its freight and logistics service into a national transport business in partnership with Linfox, a large logistics and supply chain management company.
Originally, the Wiradjuri Study Center was envisioned as a small-scale facility that off ered a Wiradjuri studies program in conjunction with local post-secondary institutions. Over time, the initiative evolved into a more ambitious concept, becoming a place where, as Knight describes it, Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal people can acknowledge the past and move forward towards a better future.
The Center took four years to build. Barrick was the primary funder, but the building was designed and built by the Wiradjuri using many locally made products that have special significance to Aboriginal people. For instance, the building is made from compressed earth brick derived from the clay soil base that predominates in Condobolin. The bricks represent the concept of mother earth to Aboriginal people, as well as the idea of rebuilding culture, brick by brick.
The Center also incorporates a number of sustainability initiatives, including tanks to collect rain water, waste water collection systems and green waste separation and compost facilities. “It’s a substantial building that gives the Wiradjuri an opportunity to have a place they can call home,” says Bill Shallvey, Barrick’s Land Manager at the Cowal mine. “It is quite an achievement.”
The building is a circular structure built around a grass courtyard that the Wiradjuri refer to as a “yarn up” space. “It’s an integral part of the Center,” Knight says. “It’s a place where people can come together and meet informally to share stories. It’s not unlike how we used to communicate when we lived traditional lifestyles.”
For Barrick’s Shallvey, the opening of the Center is just the latest example of the strong bond between Barrick and the Wiradjuri nation. Shallvey helped build that bond, meeting Wiradjuri leaders and residents in communities near Cowal years before it became an operating mine. These engagement efforts helped build a foundation of mutual trust and respect that underpins the relationship today. “I would like to think that Barrick has sent a message, not only in Australia, but around the globe that we can work with Aboriginal people,” Shallvey says. “And I would like to think that the Wiradjuri, one of the bigger Aboriginal groups in Australia, would say the same thing about the mining industry.”
Shallvey need not have any worries on that score. “I think we have this very beautiful and precious strategic arrangement with Cowal,” Knight says. “It certainly is a model that both partners are very happy with and that could be implemented in other communities throughout Australia and, indeed, elsewhere in the world.”