The Promises and Perils of Mining

Dispossession can take many forms, but for Aboriginal people in Australia few are as physically stark as the removal that occurs when extraction industries enter their country. The landscape which Indigenous people believe was formed by their ancestors is broken, disturbed, and literally hauled away. Even the best reclamation projects cannot restore the shape of the country to what it was before the miners arrived. And aside from the metaphysical concerns that such alteration of the landscape raises, the lingering effects of industrial pollution from chemicals used in processing rare metals or the radioactive legacy of uranium extraction can bring on somatic illnesses as deadly as the spiritual ones that derive from obliterating the terrestrial remnants of the Dreaming ancestors.The history of Aborigines and mining in Australia is far from simply a tale of rapacity, although that is a theme that resonates in every corner of the country. Arguably the most significant change in the recognition of Aboriginal rights in Australia, that of Native Title, stems directly from the Gove Dispute of the 1960s over the establishment of the bauxite mine near the mission at Yirrkala. The protests lodged by the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, beginning with the famous Yirrkala Bark Petition, the ensuing legal case of Milirrpum v. Nabalco, the Woodward Decision, and the resulting drafting of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) 1976, have forever altered the relationships of Aboriginal people and the Australian government.

The restoration of even small parcels of land to even partial Indigenous control did little to stave off the battles over mining rights, especially across large tracts of the north of Australia from Cape York through the Pilbara, and the stories of the conflict have been told many times in many ways, ranging from Werner Herzog’s film Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) through Quentin Beresford’s prize-winning biography, Rob Riley: an Aboriginal leader’s quest for justice (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2006). Even Midnight Oil’s famous song “Beds are Burning” alludes to a mining story: the destruction of the community of Mapoon on western Cape York to make way for the Weipa bauxite mine.

Now a new book from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy and Research, Power, Culture, Economy: Indigenous Australians and Mining, edited by Jon Altman and David Martin (ANU Press, CAEPR Research Monograph no. 30, 2009), offers an extensive review of the recent history, current status, and future prospects of agreements and disputes among the three principal partners in the development of mining practice in Australia: governments, mining companies, and Aboriginal people and their organizations, councils, and communities. The essays included in this volume offer both broad overviews and focused case studies that look at the operations of three large enterprises: the Ranger Uranium Mine near Kakadu in the Northern Territory, the Yandicoogina Mine in Western Australia’s Pilbara, and the Century Mine in the Carpentaria region of Queensland. As Altman states in his introductory chapter,

The key question the research sets out to address is whether major long-life extractive mines located on Aboriginal owned land and near Aboriginal communities have the capacity to fundamentally alter the marginal socioeconomic status of Indigenous Australian in a sustainable manner (p. 3).

Overall, the prognosis does not look good. One can start from the premise that mining enterprises alter Indigenous economies, and to alter economy is to alter culture. Or one can proceed from the point argued by Elizabeth Povinelli in The Cunning of Recognition (Duke University Press, 2002) and consider that the conditions for the acquisition of native title rights are determined by non-Indigenous assessment of the authenticity of cultural maintenance through time. Thus, as David Martin lays out in his contribution, “The governance of agreements between Aboriginal people and resource developers: Principles for sustainability,”

Native title is also a very legally fragile form of property right. Its existence depends upon continuing adherence by the native title holders to the laws and customs from which their native title derives. Post-determination socio-cultural changes–including indeed those which would logically result from the positive impacts of engagement with the mining industry–could result in a government seek to have the determination that native title exists revoked, on the basis that the particular groups’ laws and customs are no longer traditional (p. 109).

But even putting the threat of such legal challenges aside (which it would have been unwise to do during the Howard years), Benedict Scambary, in the book’s concluding essay, finds the odds to be unfavorably stacked. Speaking of the arrangements that have been engineered in each of the three operations that form the case studies for this book (Ranger, Yandicoogina, and Century) he comes to the following grim conclusion.

All three agreements are considered best practice by the mining industry, the state and select Indigenous leaders, for their perceived capacity to deliver substantial and sustainable benefits to Indigenous people. However a combination of the scale of Indigenous disadvantage and the mainstream development parameters of the agreements themselves limit the attainment of sustainable outcomes for Indigenous people associated with all three agreements. …[A] fundamental limitation of these mining agreements is their incapacity to engage with and augment the diverse livelihood objectives of Indigenous people (p. 171).

Throughout, the authors of the eight essays that comprise Power, Culture, Economy blend insights from economics, anthropology, demography, and organizational theory to illuminate many facets of the changing landscape (no pun intended) of relationships between miners and Aboriginal people, whether mediated by the state or not. 

Perhaps the most significant change has been in the attitudes of the mining corporations themselves. From a position in the 1970s and 80s where they battled land rights at every turn, companies like Rio Tinto have now come to believe in the importance of the “social license” to operate. They understand that the good will of the state is not sufficient to the success of their operations and that the cooperation of the people whose lives and lands are altered by mining can be far more crucial than government largesse and legal support.

Mining can offer substantial financial benefits to those communities who reach an accommodation, but often such agreements are only the beginning of an unfolding play of intercultural actions and sometimes unanticipated consequences. Chief among these is the government’s willingness to withdraw support for communities that have gained economic benefits from the mining companies. In her contribution to this monograph, Sarah Holcombe develops a theme put forth in a 2004 article by Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh of Griffith University entitled “Denying citizens their rights? Indigenous people, mining payments and service provision” (Australian Journal of Public Administration, 63 (2): 45-50):

‘If mining payments are used to pay for basic social services [that are citizenship rights] then opportunity’ … to utilise a significant economic asset cannot be utilised to overcome economic disadvantage. A case can be made that the development of these homelands has been an example of ‘substitution funding’, whereby the expenditure from mining payments has substituted for government funds that were spent elsewhere. The result is no net increase in spending on services in these communities (pp. 158-159, emphasis added).

Other tensions arise from differing underlying cultural assumptions. Corporations often approach communities with expectations that the funds they supply will be invested in entrepreneurial activities, only to find that individualism is out of place, at best, among the parties on the Indigenous side. Where such entrepreneurial initiatives arise, they are often family-oriented and lead to competition and dissatisfaction among different elements in the community, or different language groups in the affected areas. Indeed, it is sometimes nearly impossible to decide who the parties to such agreements ought to be, what the affected areas are, and who has rights of any kind in them.

Cultural assumptions also provide the occasion for several minor insights in the course of these essays that, while perhaps tangential to the main economic and governmental analyses, illustrate for me just how hard it is to establish meaningful common ground. Martin discusses the many ways in which funds from mining profits might be used by Aboriginal communities to establish new programs that provide employment and “insert their cultural forms and presence onto the mine site.” Martin refers to the practice of inducting staff and guests into formal exchange relationships and “giving them a ritual safe passage across the mine site … a form of specifically Aboriginal health and safety instruction” (p. 115). The metaphor will no doubt raise a smile on many a reader’s lips (it did on mine). But such rituals exist for the purpose of impressing upon visitors that fact that the country is dangerous, much as a flight attendant’s ritual instructions on fastening a seat belt are designed to warn air travelers to the perils of unanticipated turbulence. 

Similarly, Martin points to profound changes in social custom that may arise if the goal of increasing Indigenous employment at mines near existing communities succeeds. Such employment could slow the exodus of young people from the communities. Together with the current rise in population and the tilt in most communities toward an increasingly younger demographic overall, this new employment could result in “enculturation into a distinctively Aboriginal social and cultural milieu taking place within generational age cohorts–such as peer groups–rather than through transmissions from senior to junior generations” (p. 111). The exact consequences of such a shift would be impossible to predict, but certainly pose risks to culture as well as to social order.

The essays collected in Power, Culture, Economy are almost all easily accessible in style and content to the general reader seeking an introduction to the complexities of present-day interactions between miners and Aborigines. They also form an excellent sourcebook for those in industry and government, and in Aboriginal organizations as well, on issues and outcomes social and economic. The bibliography of referenced sources alone runs to almost forty pages. Furthermore, it is encouraging to note that the research that led to this book was conducted under the auspices of the Australian Research Council in partnership with Rio Tinto and the Committee for Economic Development of Australia. Readers with interest in current issues in Aboriginal culture, socio-economics, anthropology, and law will all find the hours spent in the pages of this monograph both enlightening and rewarding.


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