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Tiwi Islanders rejoice after major legal victory

Environment Programme / Partner story

Photo credit: Rebecca Parker, Environment Centre NT

Located in the Northern Territory of Australia, 80km north of Darwin, are the Tiwi Islands. And today, the Indigenous peoples who call these islands home have cause to celebrate. This is because a drilling project in the Barossa gas field, north of the Tiwi Islands, has been halted by the Australian Federal Court. In the December ruling, the court denied an appeal to resume the project by Santos, one of the leading energy exploration and production companies in the Asia-Pacific region.

Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa, a senior lawman and Tiwi Traditional Owner from the Munupi clan, who was chosen by his community to represent them, worked with local attorneys from the not-for-profit Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) to challenge the company in court. In doing so, the Traditional Owners want to protect their precious food sources and the sacred and culturally important area north of the Tiwi Islands in the Timor Sea.

Part of the court’s deliberative process included traveling to the Tiwi Islands to consider evidence from Tiwi Traditional Owners, including Mr Tipakalippa, in the form of song and dance. “We want the whole world to hear our voice. We want the whole world to see our power,” Mr Tipakalippa said. “We are part of the sea and the sea is part of us — this is our country and we must be consulted.”

The decision upholds a landmark ruling in September 2022 that required the company to suspend its project until it properly consulted all Traditional Owners who may be affected by the drilling, as required by law. The legal victory would not have been possible without support from the Environment Centre Northern Territory (ECNT), a not-for-profit community organisation working with the EDO to ensure that Traditional Owners can participate fully in the legal process.

“Today’s decision sends a message to all gas companies that they cannot sideline First Nations peoples,” ECNT executive director Dr Kirsty Howey said. “Gas companies are not above the law. This case was only ever about making sure Dennis and his clan had their say as the law requires.” 

Additionally, EDO special counsel Alina Leikin reacted positively to the ruling. “This is an historic victory – David has slayed Goliath,” Ms Leikin said. “It is a testament to the courage and determination of Tiwi People.”

Oak Foundation supports EDO and ECNT through a grant to Swiss Philanthropy Foundation, who help Tiwi Islanders protect the surrounding seas and natural resources that are central to the wellbeing of their communities. At Oak, we congratulate Dennis, the Munupi clan, and Tiwi Islanders celebrating their victory. These grants fall under Oak Foundation’s Environment Programme, which seeks to safeguard the future by restoring our connection to nature and changing the ways we feed and fuel our world. You can read more about the programme and its strategy by clicking here. You can also learn more about the Tiwi Island leaders by clicking here and the Environment Defenders Office by clicking here.