Hundreds of people in Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane have rallied in support of Aboriginal traditional owners to voice their strong opposition to Santos’ $3.6bn gas project in western New South Wales, which they say will devastate Gamilaraay Gomeroi cultural ties to sacred and significant heritage sites.

Last month, federal environment minister Sussan Ley approved the controversial development that could see up to 850 gas wells being drilled in grazing land and the Pilliga forest, which holds great significance for Gamilaraay Gomeroi people.

Ley said at the time she was satisfied the biodiversity of the Pilliga would be protected. But protestors outside Parliament House in Canberra called for Ley to come out and hear their concerns about the damage they say will be done to Gamilaraay sites in the name of “a gas-led recovery” from the Covid pandemic.

Gomeroi traditional owner, Polly Cutmore told the Canberra rally: “We are calling on all our mob and anyone who loves and respects Gomeroi country to let these politicians know they don’t make decisions for us.

“Sussan Ley has not taken notice of the majority of people who live on Gomeroi country and oppose this gasfield.

“She has ignored us, the scientists, the farmers, so many people, and we’ve had enough.”

Polly Cutmore leads the protest outside Parliamentl house in Canberra
Polly Cutmore (right) leads the protest outside Parliament house in Canberra. ‘Gamil means No’ was a national day of action to draw attention to objections to the Santos gas project in Narrabri and the Pilliga. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

While the way is now clear for Santos to proceed, the company has said it will take between 12 to 18 months to decide whether or not to invest in the development.

Under the proposal, Santos would drill up to 850 wells more than a kilometre deep to extract enough gas to meet half of NSW’s domestic demand for the next 20 years.

Public response to the development has been overwhelmingly opposed. The NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment received nearly 23,000 submissions. Almost 98% were opposed on a range of grounds, including that it could damage groundwater relied on for agriculture, lead to a loss of pressure in the Great Artesian Basin, affect biodiversity in the Pilliga forest and release substantial greenhouse gas emissions.

“[Ley] should meet with us and tell us directly why she has ignored 23,000 submissions opposing this gasfield, and why she is relying on Santos’ word,” Cutmore said.

“We also call on Santos investors to come down and join us First Nations people. They should invest in us because we are the people who want to maintain clean water, land and air in our country.”

Fellow Gomeroi traditional owner Gwenda Stanley said: “Sussan Ley doesn’t live on Gomeroi Country, she’s got no bloodline to our country, and has never been out there to discuss anything with us.

“We’re going to fight this gasfield because it threatens to poison our people, our country.”

In Brisbane, more than a hundred people protested outside Santos Place in the CBD, while rallies were also held in Sydney and Melbourne.

Santos chief executive Kevin Gallagher has said in the past the “game-changing” Narrabri project is “critical to creating jobs, driving investment, turbo-charging regional development and delivering more competitive energy prices”.

But protestors said they reject the so-called gas-led recovery and demanded governments invest in renewables. They called for better protections of Aboriginal sacred and significant sites, saying current state and federal laws offered no protection for Gamilaraay heritage or culture.

At the Sydney rally, Gomeroi woman Tameeka Tighe told the crowd: “I’m here to tell you, this land is the law, and we’ve been here since the beginning of time and we’re not going anywhere.

“We’re here to take everything our ancestors were denied. We’re Gomeroi next generation, and we’re going to be here until the end of time.

“There’s one land and there’s one law, and that’s ours: Gomeroi.”

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