Mining offers great hope for many Indigenous communities, with promises of jobs and schools. However Australia’s Traditional Owners should not sell themselves short of a future.
FOR THE PAST DECADE, Australia has found itself surfing a wave of economic prosperity precipitated by a mining boom that has seen a massive increase in raw resource extraction, on top of our advantageous geo-political proximity to some of the worlds largest emerging economies in Asia.
The juxtaposition between this prosperity and the still disproportionate levels of social and economic disadvantage among Australia’s Indigenous population is one of the key national issues that we as a nation will need to reconcile in order to find a pathway forward from the still lingering dark ghosts of our nation’s past.
Next week in Darwin, Indigenous land owners, environment groups and other stakeholders from around the world will come together to address some of these burning issues at the World Indigenous Network 2013 conference. The conference comes at a key moment because across Australia, particularly in the north, there is an increasing number of collaborations between Indigenous Australians and conservationists, occurring alongside Australia’s mining boom.
Indigenous peoples from places as diverse and distant as Egypt, Mongolia, Lappland, Ecuador and all over Asia Pacific and representatives from communities right across Aboriginal Australia will share stories and strategies about a broad range of land and sea management issues and to celebrate healthy country and strong cultures.
The Australian Conservation Foundation has long recognised that the best way to protect the environment in this country is in partnership with those who have done this for thousands of years – the Aboriginal traditional owners.
This vision for northern Australia aims to respect culture, protect the environment and put forward appropriate solutions for issues affecting Indigenous communities. One of the great challenges now facing all people working to see clean country and healthy communities is how to best address years of institutionalised Indigenous disadvantage.
Some view the resource industry as the primary way to empower Indigenous communities. From ACF’s perspective this is a dangerous and fraught path. The historical experience of the interface between the resource sector and our first peoples is one of profound and adverse impact.
White occupation of Australia was based on the legal fiction of terra nullius, coupled with a utilitarian economic thinking that saw this ’empty land’ as fair game for any activity that could generate ‘ownership’ and income.
Then, as now, mining could do that. Times, people and expectations have changed, but there is still a massive structural imbalance weighted in favour of mining giants.
The heavy footprint of the mining sector is compounded by the legal limitations of the native title regime, the often controversial and secretive nature of mining agreements and the fact that the cards are heavily stacked against the Aboriginal people who are concerned about or would prefer to see no mining on their country.
And underpinning all is a more fundamental question: why should Indigenous communities have to trade away their land for basic citizenship entitlements that other Australians take for granted? What about the many, many Indigenous communities that do not have mineral riches underneath their country or who cannot prove to the satisfaction of a non-Aboriginal court that they have a connection to that country?
The question that looms large is how can we have a mining boom alongside deeply entrenched Indigenous disadvantage and still ensure healthy country and communities for future generations. For the answer to this we need to listen more closely to the voices of Indigenous leaders.
As Murrandoo Yanner, chairman of the Carpentaria Land Council Aboriginal Corporation and a Gangalidda man of the Gunamulla clan commented recently, “Mining is here to stay in Northern Australia, but it’s no silver bullet. Mining jobs are limited and all booms eventually bust. Building an economy in remote regions of Australia requires longer-term vision…Our people want to get to work managing it. Indigenous rangers and Indigenous Protected Areas are a great success story providing real jobs and good management for our country.”
Australia can and must forge a future that embraces indigenous cultural and ecological knowledge and heritage and takes a different approach to managing our precious country for all generations to come – and this is a journey that must be taken together.
This piece was written co-written with Dave Sweeney & James Norman, in fact, they wrote most of it. It was originally published on the ABC’s Environment page.