Preserving Australia’s sacred culture

More and more mining companies are sharing the riches and opportunities in the lands in which they operate with the people who first walked the ground. Vanessa Zhou writes.

Indigenous Australians are increasingly being offered a presence and integral roles at Australia’s most prominent mining operations.

Fortescue Metals Group, for example, is a company that owns and operates three iron ore mines in the Pilbara with a strong contingent of Indigenous workers and contractors.

From the outset, the company has also been committed to ensuring the communities surrounding these sites benefit from its success, according to Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines.

“We are in a privileged position of being able to empower these businesses with the capability and capacity to effect positive change in Aboriginal communities across the Pilbara,” Gaines tells Australian Mining.

“Through our Billion Opportunities initiative, we’ve provided our Native Title groups and their members the chance to build sustainable futures for their communities through the provision of business development to provide genuine economic opportunity.”

Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines was joined by members of the Wirlu-murra Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation Board to celebrate the significance of the contract awards. Image: Fortescue Metals Group


Fortescue continues to strengthen its commitment to Indigenous people and awarded its largest contracts yet to 100 per cent-owned Aboriginal businesses in June.

The two contracts, worth a combined $179 million, brought Fortescue’s total value of contracts to Aboriginal businesses and joint ventures (JV) to $2.3 billion since 2011.

In July, Fortescue celebrated the latest 24 students who graduated from its Vocational Training and Employment Centre (VTEC) as they started traineeships across its Pilbara mines.

“Fortescue’s VTEC program is based on the simple, but compelling idea that after successfully completing training, you are guaranteed a job,” Gaines says.

“Since VTEC began in 2006, more than 836 Aboriginal people have been offered employment.”

Fortescue breaks down the social barriers that prohibit many Aboriginal people from gaining employment with the VTEC program.

“Fortescue adopts a ‘hand up, not a hand out’ approach to working with Aboriginal businesses and communities. … We are proud of our long-standing relationships with the Aboriginal businesses that work across our operations, which are complemented by excellence in safety and operational performance,” Gaines says.

Fortescue is just one of many leading mining companies now incorporating extensive Indigenous programs within their company.

Fourteen of Australia’s leading organisations, including BHP, Rio Tinto and Woodside Energy, joined forces during National Reconciliation Week to support the recognition of Indigenous Australians in the nation’s constitution.

This path is outlined by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which begins: “Our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign Nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands, and possessed it under our own laws and customs.

“This our ancestors did, according to the reckoning of our culture, from the Creation, according to the common law from ‘time immemorial’, and according to science more than 60,000 years ago…

“How could it be otherwise? That peoples possessed a land for 60 millennia and this sacred link disappears from world history in merely the last 200 years?”

The 14 institutional heads of these organisations verbally proclaim their support of Indigenous communities, recognising the Uluru Statement as an “historic mandate” to create a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

This commitment reflects how resources companies are rising up to their responsibility of taking care of the Aboriginal communities around them.

For New Century Resources, the Indigenous community adds value to the company by helping bring local knowledge, connection to the country and an eagerness to be involved in the Century mine’s land rehabilitation in north west Queensland.

New Century awarded a ground-breaking contract last year to the Waanyi ReGen JV, a partnership between the Waanyi People and Downer, for the mining of in-situ resources adjacent to the existing Century open pit.

Carpentaria Local Aboriginal Land Council chairman Murrandoo Yanner at the Century mine’s reopening. Image: New Century Resources


The company will share 50 per cent of the profits from the contract mining to the Traditional Owners, on top of ongoing compensation arrangements.

“When New Century approached the Waanyi People about the prospective recommencement of hard rock mining at the Century mine, the Waanyi People expressed a keen interest in not only being recipients of the typical compensation payments associated with Native Title and Cultural Heritage arrangements, but also in taking responsibility for the operations and benefiting as an owner,” New Century head of corporate affairs and social responsibility Shane Goodwin says.

New Century’s open and transparent approach to engaging with the Traditional Owner groups since acquiring the Century mine in 2017 led to the execution of the mining services agreement.

Glencore, meanwhile, has established a $1.3 million Indigenous employment program that provides the community with a pathway to full-time work across the company’s operations.

The Indigenous employment program is offered at its Mount Isa and Ernest Henry mining operations in Queensland.

Participants receive ongoing support through each stage of the program, from the work-readiness course through to mining school, including mentorship from fellow Indigenous employees, according to Glencore.

Upon completion of the program, participants could progress into full-time employment either with Glencore or one of its contracting partner organisations.

In July, Glencore took home the North Queensland Regional Training Award for the Large Employer of the Year category.

“Sponsored education programs like the school leavers, graduate, Indigenous employment and apprenticeship programs provide training opportunities and an invaluable foot-in-the-door to the mining sector,” Glencore chief operating officer, zinc assets Australia, Greg Ashe says.

“With such a diverse business and workforce, training is an investment, and tailoring our programs to suit the needs of business and our employees within a broad range of operational areas is essential.”

A Rio Tinto spokesperson concedes that the mining giant could not operate “without working in partnership with the Traditional Owners.”

The company recognises that its mines, such as the Amrun bauxite project in Far North Queensland, operates on traditional land.

“The composition of our workforce and our approach to business is a reflection of this,” a Rio Tinto spokesperson tells Australian Mining.

“More than $277 million was spent with Western Cape suppliers on the Amrun project, and 400 Indigenous people, including 120 local Aboriginal people, have been employed throughout construction. At Weipa, about 26 per cent of the operational workforce is Indigenous.”

Rio Tinto engaging with the Weipa local community


In fact, the Wik-Waya Traditional Owners who Rio Tinto works in partnership with own the land Amrun is constructed on and named the bauxite project after the area in a Wik-Waya language.

The $2.6 billion Amrun project has been recognised with the Best Company Indigenous Procurement Initiative Award at the Queensland Resources Council (QRC) Indigenous Awards in May for creating sustainable Indigenous procurement and employment opportunities.

This initiative has extended Indigenous participation beyond the construction phase of the project into operations.

As of 2018, 69 Western Cape businesses, including 17 Indigenous businesses, had supplied goods directly and indirectly to the Amrun project, according to Rio Tinto.

“Our commitment is to ensure ongoing opportunities are available for local and Indigenous businesses and community members,” the company spokesperson says.

“We recognise … a shared desire to operate respectfully and for mutual benefit for current and future generations.”

Australian mining companies are demonstrating they have the capability to develop honest and trusting relationships with Australia’s Indigenous people through these initiatives.

These growing relationships, along with the values that are being exchanged, are not only vital to the success of a mining operation, but also show they can improve the quality of life in local communities.

This article also appears in the September edition of Australian Mining.

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