Giving Aboriginal people the chance to labour on mines can’t be considered real compensation for the permanent destruction of traditional lands, but the more progressive companies have recognised the potential to establish genuine partnerships with native title groups
Giving Aboriginal people the chance to labour on mines can’t be considered real compensation for the permanent destruction of traditional lands, but the more progressive companies have recognised the potential to establish genuine partnerships with native title groups.
The 1992 event that has become known as the Mabo Decision changed the landscape of mining and exploration in Australia forever. This was a landmark High Court ruling that recognised the legal concept of native title for the first time, rejecting the previously held doctrine of terra nullius. It gave the indigenous traditional owners certain legal rights to their land.
The Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, of which Simon Hawkins has been chief executive for the past decade, is an organisation that represents 25 Aboriginal cultural groups across the Pilbara, Murchison and Gascoyne regions of Western Australia – including dealing with Australia’s major resource developers with respect to native title claims.
Mr Hawkins explains that recognition of native title does not give a veto over mining or development, as traditional owners cannot stop mining from going ahead. What it does give these groups is a right to negotiate, allowing development to go ahead while claims are being resolved.
“This gives traditional owners a seat at the table – to have a say about how mining will unfold on their country,” he says.
“When I started as chief executive in 2003, the mining boom was ramping up and companies which previously had poor relationships with Aboriginal people were now knocking on our door. Within my first few weeks on the job, Rio Tinto said it wanted to do a comprehensive agreement in the Pilbara. By 2004, the boom really hit; iron ore projections were enormous and industry was clamouring to get agreements in place.”
YMAC has since represented traditional owners in negotiations with many companies, including Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Chevron, Hancock Prospecting, Atlas Iron, Citic Pacific Mining, Fortescue Metals Group, Iron Ore Holdings and Murchison Metals.
“In the early days of the boom,” recalls Mr Hawkins.
“The biggest challenges were about getting companies to acknowledge the established decision-making groups for dealing with native title business. In some cases, it took years for YMAC to create a legitimate point of engagement with companies over future development. There was a tendency for some companies to try and strike deals with individuals or attempt to create their own indigenous negotiating bodies, resulting in millions of wasted dollars and years of delays. This has changed dramatically over time, with most of the major players now engaging well with YMAC’s community-endorsed structures.”
A more ongoing challenge has been impressing upon companies the true spirit of the native title legislation.
“Unfortunately, some companies still confuse legitimate compensation agreements with welfare,” Mr Hawkins says.
“Giving Aboriginal people the chance to labour on mines can’t be considered real compensation for the permanent destruction of traditional lands. But the more progressive companies have recognised the potential to establish genuine partnerships with native title groups. They accept the need to properly compensate traditional owners for the loss of current and future generations’ native title rights and the long-term impact on their traditional country.”
Mr Hawkins cites the positive attitude of Rio Tinto, quoting its former head of iron ore, Sam Walsh, as saying of native title: “It’s good for the Aboriginal community. It’s good for our business. It also happens to be the right thing to do.”
Mr Hawkins notes that, for its own part, one of YMAC’s challenges was to change its internal culture – to move away from an ideological approach and become less adversarial, more professional and outcome focused.
He says agreements can be reached within very short time frames when company decision makers are present for critical parts of the negotiations.
In 2008, Atlas Iron’s David Flanagan met directly with the equivalent senior decision makers from the Kariyarra people of the Pilbara, which resulted in a benchmark agreement being reached in only two months.
“These new attitudes mean that many of the agreements we see today represent an important paradigm shift in the relationship between traditional owners and miners operating in these regions,” Mr Hawkins says.
While each agreement differs, he adds, there are common best-practice features that underpin them, including financial payments linked to annual production, non-financial benefits and heritage protection. These agreements do not always fall into place neatly, with Mr Hawkins saying the process requires patience on both sides.
“Outcomes won’t be seen overnight, and income streams might not start for several years. It’s critical that relationships stay strong during these foundation stages, to withstand internal and political pressures,” he says.
One of the emerging issues is the need for traditional owners to have strong consumer protection standards in place to ensure that they obtain only ethical, professional advice and are not exposed to unscrupulous consultants.
“Another ongoing area of concern is the balance between development and conservation of some of the world’s oldest cultural heritage,” Mr Hawkins says.
“The Western Australian state government’s proposed weakening of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 threatens traditional owners’ obligations to protect sites of importance for future generations.”
Reflecting on his decade in the role, Mr Hawkins says he has seen many positive results flow from agreements with traditional owners.
“In addition to land access agreements, we’re now seeing traditional owners involved in business ventures to service the mining industry, along with the generation of employment and broader social opportunities,” he says.
“Over the years, both YMAC and the mining industry have evolved to create sophisticated approaches to native title issues. Some companies, in particular, have shown very strong leadership in their relationships with Aboriginal people.
“In terms of a broader legacy, I hope the agreements negotiated on behalf of traditional owners will permanently shift the culture and relationships in Western Australia – not only between mining companies and traditional owners, but also with government and the broader public – with respect to formal recognition of Aboriginal country and culture.”
Simon Hawkins has been CEO of Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation for the past decade, during which time he has been closely associated with developments in native title in WA as they pertain to the resources sector. His views are featured in Barry Avery’s new book The Miners - Stories from the industry that drives modern Australia, an edited extract of which is printed above.
The Miners by Barry Avery, Chapter 13, pp 160-162
Published by It’s a Minefield 2013
Text © Barry Avery