Indigenous Communities, Land Rights and Mining

By Hsin-Yi Lo

By Hsin-Yi Lo. This article is part of our August theme, which focuses on the environment and human rightsRead more articles on this theme.

All individuals are entitled to live in an environment adequate for their health and well-being“.

Australia’s mining boom has attracted many local and international mining companies. International companies such as BHP Billiton, Chalco, Alcoa and Rio Tinto have profited tremendously from Australia’s natural resources. The Australian Government has continuously praised the mining industry for securing many employment opportunities and boosting the Australian economy. According to the BIS Shrapnel report, mining investment will help the Australian economy grow by three per cent per year.

But the picture is not as flawless as it appears; from an environmental standpoint, mining causes degradation. To Indigenous communities, exploiting and polluting the land means the destruction of culture, memories, identities and presence in Australia.

At the 2012 National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, James Anaya, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, said “natural resource extraction and other major development projects in or near indigenous territories are one of the most significant sources of abuse of the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide”.

Indigenous Australians, land and well-being

Indigenous Australians see the land as more than just a physical space in which they live. Indigenous culture is one of the oldest cultures in the world, ranging from 50,000-65,000 years old. Throughout this long history, Indigenous Australians have maintained their diverse and rich cultures and languages through oral stories passed from elders to their descendants.

The land on which they dwell is filled with those histories and memories. The land and unique natural sites define who they are, how they connect with their families, relatives and other members of the community. Through Dreamtime, Indigenous Australians traditionally understand the land, animals, plants and rivers were bestowed to them by the Ancestor Spirits. With this gift they perceive the land as sacred because it connects them with their forefathers and history spiritually. Therefore, protection of the land means protection of culture and identity.

Culture and identity are integral to one’s well-being. Since the arrival of European settlers, from the perspective of Indigenous Australians, the trauma of losing rights and spiritual connection to the land ensued. Their ability to express their culture and identity has been significantly reduced. This affects the mental wellbeing of Indigenous Australians.

Culture and language are survival mechanisms; they are the key to the continuation of knowledge and existence itself. For all cultural groups in the world, maintaining and passing on their culture, customs and language is a furtherance of their identity, character and uniqueness.

Indigenous Australians, land and mining

Indigenous communities are granted the right to  negotiate with mining companies and owners. Indigenous elders have utilised the mining boom to expand opportunities for people in their communities. For example in 2011, Andrew Twiggy Forrest, who is now the non-executive chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, was locked into a negotiation deal with Indigenous elders. He offered to pay $10 million per year compensation for the mining of the Karijini traditional land, but the community wanted four times the amount.

However, according to Griffith Business School researchers Professor Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh and Tony Corbett, Indigenous communities are disadvantaged when trying to reach agreements with mining companies. Professor O’Faircheallaigh commented “In all 17 cases taken to the Tribunal in the last decade, the Tribunal has granted the mining leases and been unwilling to impose conditions that might prove onerous for the miner”.

Dr Jillian Marsh from Curtin University said mining companies use a “divide and conquer” strategy and this limits Indigenous elders’ power over the discussions. She further added “this pattern of behaviour by the mining industry is really very predatory” and “they go in and cut private, secret deals”.

The protection of the land and its natural sites ensures the survival of the first owners and cultures of the land. The integrity of the land strongly correlates with these communities’ well-being and health. Mining not only causes physical destruction of the land, but it is also a symbolic destruction of Indigenous identity and culture.  As a result, Indigenous communities  are now facing harder challenges in preserving their culture. Their culture is the key to their strong sense of well-being and, most of all, their existence in this world.