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Traditional custodians sign deal for $3b Square Kilometre Array telescope after years of negotiation

After nearly seven years of negotiation, traditional custodians of the Murchison region in Western Australia have consented to a $3 billion radio telescope to be built on their ancestral lands. 

About 150 people gathered at the remote Murchison Settlement yesterday to celebrate the signing of the Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) with the Wajarri people and the Commonwealth government.

It was the final significant step the CSIRO needed to clear before it could begin construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an unprecedented international telescope project to be built in Australia and South Africa. 

Once operational, it will allow astronomers to see the sky in unprecedented detail at unparallel speed.

Scientists like Douglas Bock, director of space and astronomy at the CSIRO, hope to receive radio waves from the beginning of the universe. 

"These are radio waves that are the same as the ones that come from FM radio stations. Those very early radio waves tell us what the state of the early universe was, how galaxies and stars were formed, and how we got to be here on planet Earth," he said. 

He said construction would start in a few months, and it would take around five years for the main parts of the construction to be complete. 

The Australian component of the SKA will involve 132,000 antennae to be built in three spiralling arms across 65 kilometres, forming a large data-collecting area.

How and where to build those antennae without interfering with significant places for Aboriginal people was a complex puzzle. 

The best we can

Dwayne Mallard, who was one of the negotiators for the Wajarri people, said it had been a challenge bringing the community together through such a significant project.

"At the centre of it is how do we uphold the responsibilities and obligations that we are born into, which is to preserve and protect and maintain the dignity of our culture, people and land," he said.

"We've certainly done that to the best we can.

"We are hopeful for the opportunity and choice that will come from this project." 

Along with contributing to cultural heritage and protection, the ILUA includes a confidential cash component, as well as jobs, training and education for Wajarri people. 

'I reserve my judgement'

But doubt still lingers about how much genuine opportunity will come from the agreement.

Anthony Dann was also a Wajarri negotiator for the ILUA, but he maintained that he would prefer the SKA not to be built in the Murchison. 

"It's been a long, drawn-out process, but in relation to the agreement, I reserve my judgement until there is proof in the pudding," he said. 

"We have been in this place before with the [2009] Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory (MRO) where the CSIRO has promised the Wajarri certain things, and they've failed to deliver, and I would expect this would be the same. 

"They'll deliver some cash into our trust, but as far as opportunities for Wajarri people and contractors, I don't think they'll eventuate."

David Luchetti, the chief negotiator on the Commonwealth team for the ILUA process, said this was the best agreement that both parties could have secured.

"So, I'm quite comfortable with it," he said. 

"It was a complex negotiation. Firstly, it was us understanding what the Wajarri needs were, but also us needing to communicate what our impact would be because it wasn't entirely clear. 

"We wanted to emphasise that we would have a low impact."

Mr Luchetti said the question of "what happens next" had been raised by Wajarri people during the negotiations. 

"We have made it clear that we want to step in behind our commitments, to follow through and to deliver on those, we know it won't be easy, but it is important we work with the Wajarri to do that," he said. 

Mr Luchetti pointed to a number of committees that had been established to work through any issues and ensure there was ongoing communication between the government and traditional custodians. 

About 30 kilometres up the road from the SKA site, residents of the remote Pia Aboriginal Community hope the $3b project will improve their standard of living. 

Community leader Julie Ryan supported the SKA project but said her community needed safe drinking water on tap, reliable power and internet, and a youth centre. 

"The biggest problem we have at Pia, though, is the septic. It needs a lot," she said. 

"There's uranium in our water. Surely there must be something they can do to make that better." 

The community members currently drink bottled water and pay for power via pre-paid meter cards. 

"There have been quite a few people asking Len and me if they can have a house at Pia, but there are only 14 houses there. They need fixing up," she said. 

Mr Luchetti said the Pia school would come on country and visit the SKA site to understand the workings of the science, and he said there were opportunities for school camps in other regions. 

"More broadly for the community, we hope they will be a source of employment, so it's a matter of working through the relationships," he said. 

"We have to deliver a cultural education program, so we would expect people potentially at the Pia community would help facilitate that."

Hope for the region 

Murchison Shire president Rossco Foulkes-Taylor said he hoped the agreement would lead to genuine difference and meaningful substantial work for locals. 

Mr Foulkes-Taylor said he wanted to see an interpretive centre for the SKA and better facilities at the Murchison settlement for tourists, and better connectivity, such as a fibre line from the SKA across to the settlement.

"It is incumbent upon those who come in with big projects to join in and be part of [the community] in a constructive way," he said.

"We don't expect something for nothing. I have every confidence it will be a great partnership, or they can head off somewhere else." 

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