Traditional Owners step into a brighter future

OZ Minerals completed construction of the Carrapateena mine in early 2020.

Tension surrounds the precarious relationship between Australian governments, mining companies and Indigenous people. Vanessa Zhou reviews the most important elements to this relationship according to the Tjiwarl and Yindjibarndi aboriginal corporations.

Mining companies and Indigenous Australians have sustained many cracks in their relationship over the years. 

After living through numerous court disputes over Indigenous rights and damage to heritage sites, the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rockshelters in the Pilbara region of Western Australia last year served as a serious blow to the relationship. 

Despite these disputes, the chief executives of the Tjiwarl and Yindjibarndi Aboriginal corporations reinforce their support for and understanding of the government’s need to advance Australia’s economy. 

Tjiwarl Aboriginal Corporation (Tjiwarl AC) chief executive Greg Ryan-Gadsden says the Tjiwarl Native Title Holders are not opposed to the idea of exploration and mining occurring on their country.

“They fully understand the contribution to the Australian and (world) economy. They believe that mining rights can coexist with native title rights,” he tells Australian Mining.

But just as a company needs to play by the rules when venturing into international territories, Australian miners also need to respect their local counterparties in the regions in which they operate.

The Tjiwarl Native Title Holders, for example, are the counterparty for a mining companies like BHP at its Nickel West operations in the Goldfields region of Western Australia. 

Their connection to country is described as something that is deeply sacred, and continues to this day through ceremony, song, visiting sites and sharing stories passed down orally through countless generations.

“Native Title Holders have lived for thousands of years within a structured societal system with complex rules and obligations to care for country and culture,” Tjiwarl AC chairperson and Native Title Holder Brett Lewis says.

“Failure to meet these obligations, even today, can result in significant cultural shame and punishment.”

But the favour doesn’t rest on the Native Title Holders, with Warren Entsch, the chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, which conducted the inquiry into the Juukan Gorge destruction, saying that federal law has proved to be of limited value when protecting Indigenous heritage. 

“The Aboriginal and Torrest Strait Island Heritage Protection Act 1984 is virtually moribund,” he states in the Juukan Gorge interim report. 

Tjiwarl AC’s Ryan-Gadsden also acknowledges that the experience of Native Title Holders with mining companies and governments in the past has been disproportionately in favour of mining development.

He credits this to the “obvious potential contribution” to employment and the economy, unfortunately at the expense of the environment and the heritage and culture of First Nations people.

Lake Miranda in Western Australia, a culturally significant site.

 

Like many native title groups, Tjiwarl places very high value on heritage protection, and can consider progressing mining projects if accommodated respectfully and fairly.

This weighs on the viewpoint of Michael Woodley, chief executive of Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (Yindjibarndi AC), which last year confronted Fortescue Metals Group over Native Title rights that covered the Solomon iron ore mine in the Pilbara, Western Australia.

Woodley says the systems of laws and processes are etched on a discriminatory framework and an irrelevant charter. 

“Our position on mining (companies) operating on sacred Ngurra (lands) is very challenging. As First Nations people, we are torn between government needs for our ongoing natural resources to be mined for growth and productivity that drive our state’s economy, and the miners’ needs for production, expansion and shareholder value (creation),” he tells Australian Mining.

“(This) makes our task very difficult in staying the course when it comes to fulfilling our obligations to protect and preserve our ecosystem, heritage values and cultural practices.

“When governments and miners have one common interest, it is at this point our Native Title support for mining and mining projects gets put through a system of laws and processes, which disappointingly gives miners more rights and control of how these laws and processes apply when it comes to mining and exploration.”

However, this tension doesn’t have to end in locked horns, with cultural competency a key ingredient that lines a successful relationship, according to Tjiwarl AC’s Lewis.

“Often, the success in business with a foreign land relies on cultural competence and understanding of fundamental communication protocols. The situation is the same with First Nations people,” he says.

“Companies may seek to fast-track approvals by engaging directly with a few locals. However, this can cause more friction with the community and factions will form. Decisions and agreements made by a few locals are unauthorised and therefore cannot be legally or culturally supported.”

While conflicts can often form due to language, Lewis underlines the importance in distinguishing the difference between a Native Title Holder saying, “Yes, I understand,” and “Yes, I agree.” 

Mining operators are also encouraged to have a genuine interest in engaging with and learning the deep cultural value of the land before commencing ground disturbance. 

This, along with transparency throughout a mining project’s lifecycle, will prove invaluable to the continuity of a mining project. Lewis is convinced that any engineering problems can be solved through conversation with the trust of locals.

“Companies that can align their business development process and policies to cultural perspectives are more likely to successfully progress from exploration to mining, addressing their social licence to operate by demonstrating their commitment to protecting culturally significant areas and preserving a unique culture,” he says.

OZ Minerals chose this approach from the outset when setting a pathway for development of the Carrapateena copper-gold project in South Australia, according to managing director and chief executive Andrew Cole. 

“When we first met with the local Traditional Owners (the Kokatha People) about this new construction some five years ago, we said to them on day one that if we couldn’t find a pathway that they would approve and support us on, we would not build this mine,” Cole, speaking at the 2020 International Mining and Resources Conference, says.

“And that is a really difficult thing for people to get their heads around, that you’re going to hand over the approval of a brand new mine to land-connected people who didn’t know very much about us or the operating environment.

“But we spent the next three years with that community earning their trust, and them ours.”

OZ Minerals then walked the Kokatha People through “every inch” of the Carrapateena project, moving pieces of infrastructure around so that it could minimise its disturbance on their land and protect their heritage.

This genuine and protracted effort has proven to be fruitful. As OZ Minerals handed its mining application for Carrapateena to the Traditional Owners, they gave their endorsement and letter of support to the company.

“That’s an example where we put our trust in the land-connected people – the Traditional Owners in this case – to support us in our new mine development, and I think it worked really, really well,” Cole says.

“We’re now doing the same exact thing at our West Musgrave (nickel-copper) project (in Western Australia), and I think if you treat people with trust and respect, they will reciprocate.”

Tjiwarl AC’s Ryan-Gadsden says it is in the interest of government and mining companies to facilitate equitable engagement, underpinned by legislation that effectively protects the country, which includes mining, heritage and the environment.

“Australia can celebrate the longest, continuous culture in the world, showcasing its cultural and environmental diversity and richness to the world,” he says.

“All this, while also promoting progress in an ethical and sustainable manner that will continue to lift living standards, grow the economy and employment, and importantly, close an unacceptably large gap in nearly every measure of life between mainstream Australia and Aboriginal people.”

TAC directors with the BHP Nickel West team in Leinster, Western Australia.

With mining companies such as OZ Minerals charting a path to an equitable relationship between Native Title Holders and corporations, every problem is ultimately solved by true collaboration. 

 “All we ask is that miners and governments accept First Nations people as real partners and key stakeholders when it comes to deciding on our nation’s sovereign wealth,” Woodley concludes.  

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