What's the impact of mining on Indigenous communities?

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About 60% of Australian mines are close to Indigenous communities. How has mining affected them?

In the past year the relationship between mining companies and Indigenous communities has been thrust into the spotlight.  

That’s thanks, in part, to the fallout of a decision by Rio Tinto to detonate explosives near ancient Aboriginal heritage sites at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara, and then concerns raised in February about whether BHP mining activity had damaged the ancient Banjima rock shelters, also in the Pilbara. 

About 60 per cent of mining projects in Australia are found in close proximity to Indigenous communities — making Indigenous communities important stakeholders in the mining industry. 

It can be a complicated relationship, as the events above suggest, but that proximity also means our mining companies are perfectly placed to help Indigenous communities grow and prosper. 

So, how has mining affected Australia’s Indigenous communities? 

Employment  

According to analysis of Census data by the ABC in late 2020, Indigenous Australians account for 3.8% of the mining workforce, well above the average 1.7% Indigenous employment rate for all industries. The census data, which may well reflect an under-reporting of data from Indigenous people, shows mining employs 6652 Indigenous Australians. 

Historically, the mining industry employed very few Indigenous workers. Figures show that in the early 1990s the number was measured “in the hundreds”. By 2011, thanks to many Indigenous Land Use Agreements between the mining industry and Indigenous communities, that figure leapt to about the current level. 

For many mining companies working in or near these communities, providing employment opportunities, education, training, and other services or benefits to their local Indigenous communities isn’t just something that’s part of a Land Use Agreement. It’s also part of their corporate social responsibility. Companies like Rio Tinto, BHP, Chevron and Fortescue Metals are keen to hire as many Aboriginal people as they can and those hired are keen to work. 

Creating stronger communities  

Many Indigenous Land Use Agreements involve mining companies providing financial assistance to local communities. According to a Federal Government report, “Indigenous communities are characterised by high levels of unemployment, welfare dependency and chronic health and social issues  issues which are not specific to the outcomes of mining activities, but reflect a larger historical issue that points to the need for significant changes in the way Australian society in general interacts with Indigenous communities”. The mining industry is, however, in a position to help. 

Many mining companies provide millions of dollars a year in: 

  • Infrastructure for Indigenous and remote communities 
  • Efficient education and employment strategies 
  • Increased capacity among Indigenous people to create, develop and run their own businesses 
  • Support for social programs and strategies, including those that promote the maintenance of culture and improved health and wellbeing. 

As the report states: “Historical problems between mining companies and Aboriginal communities mean that implementing social programs can often be a daunting challenge, but it is a challenge that has to be met if sustainable futures are to be achieved." 

Problems and challenges  

Unfortunately, even with fantastic agreements and lots of goodwill, problems can still emerge.  

The controversy at Juukan is perhaps a good example of that: the law allowed Rio Tinto to undertake the blast that destroyed the rock shelters. Since the incident, there has been quite a bit of soul-searching about what happened and how to prevent it happening again. There was an executive purge at Rio Tinto, and there are high-level discussions about ensuring adequate legal protections for Indigenous heritage sites  including a Senate inquiry. 

In 2017, the ABC published an article warning that Australia’s Indigenous communities were struggling with a legacy of endemic poverty — despite the millions of dollars the mining industry has channelled into them. 

The article is a fascinating look at a failure of process. It pointed to the Argyle Diamond Mine in Western Australia’s Kimberley region. The 2003 and 2005 Indigenous Land Use Agreements had been hailed as “best practice” when they were signed — leading to “a dramatic increase in Indigenous employment, opportunity, and a sense of self-determination for the people of the north-east Kimberley”. 

“Despite millions of dollars a year from Argyle diamonds flowing to seven local family groups, or Dawangs, via a complex web of companies and trusts, the community is riven by poverty, poor education, alcoholism and one of the highest teen suicide rates in the country,” the article explains. 

Figures from Rio Tinto’s Sustainable Development Report for Argyle show that in the four years to 2016 about $25 million in royalties was paid to the area’s traditional owners — 1500 people from seven families, plus the two Indigenous trusts which received the bulk of the money. The article cites figures that show 46 per cent of 2013-14 expenditure was spent on items of a personal nature — and just one per cent on employment and training, five per cent on health and six per cent on education. 

The future of mining and Indigenous communities  

Problems like the one outlined above serve as a lesson to the industry — to ensure future agreements are improved and mistakes don’t happen again. 

As the Federal Government report explains, the continuous maturing of relationships between mining and Indigenous communities is essential if sustainable futures are to be achieved for all parties. These relationships are continually evolving through a series of fundamental steps — “from total exclusion, to recognition, to involvement, to involvement through consultation, and now towards full participation in decision-making on more equitable terms”. 

“How much further they can develop has yet to be determined, but it is now clear that many Indigenous leaders do not want the burden of history to cripple current and future generations of their people,” the report concludes. 

“With the mining industry’s support, they have adopted many initiatives in the areas of education, training, labour recruitment and new business ventures to build pathways from poverty to fuller economic participation for their communities.” 

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Dan Hatch
Mining People International
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