Is Mining Truly Good For Indigenous People?

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In the debate over the Government’s proposed mining tax, if Indigenous communities are mentioned at all, they are almost always used to help argue that taxing miners more is a bad idea. Mining, the argument runs, is clearly good for Indigenous people, and any threat to it threatens the rich benefits that they have gained by getting involved in the industry.

Recent years have seen the emergence of a near-consensus on Indigenous policy which centres on statistical equality and involvement in the market economy, with a major current focus being Indigenous participation in the mining industry. Despite the lack of a compelling evidentiary basis, the benefits the industry offers to Indigenous people seems rapidly to have become an article of faith among politicians and the commentariat.

But how real are these "benefits"? Last year, the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research released a research monograph entitled Power, Culture, Economy: Indigenous Australians and Mining, edited by Jon Altman and David Martin. The monograph, which has attracted little attention upon its release, focuses squarely on the lived realities of Indigenous people in Australia’s "mine hinterlands". The authors do not assume that mining is either positive or negative, although they note that the field has consistently been a site for contestation between industry, government and Indigenous people.

The book mounts an incisive challenge to the dominant interpretation of "progress", a concept that is almost entirely equated with assimilation into mainstream Australian society. The implicit argument in this equation, Altman notes, is that Indigenous Australians have little choice other than full integration into the modern economy or total adherence to traditional lifestyles, with the latter "option" presumed to entail poverty and disadvantage.

The research essays in Power, Culture, Economy demonstrate that these perceptions are based on a simplistic dichotomy that ignores the intercultural identities of Indigenous people themselves. It is increasingly recognised that Indigenous societal norms — whether in urban, regional or remote communities — include both customary and western (global) values. The essays effectively show that the twin and opposing stereotypes of the remote and "authentic" Indigenes and the urban Indigenous people who have "lost their culture" should be given no place in contemporary policy debates.

The narrow view of development described above echoes a longstanding assumption that mainstream society is necessarily an attractive prospect, or, more cynically, the view proceeds on the basis that the desires of Indigenous people themselves are irrelevant. As the authors note, these desires are diverse and varied: attitudes range from enthusiastic acceptance of the mining industry to outright rejection, with a broad middle ground between.

Altman, who has written widely on the subject, notes that much of the commentary on "Indigenous development" overlooks a "hybrid economy" characterised by a mixture of market-based and traditional activities. Sarah Holcombe observes that many Indigenous people in areas affected by mining do not wish to work in the mine itself, preferring to become involved in tourism, cultural awareness training or environmental work.

The "progress" narrative therefore entails initiatives which are imposed on Indigenous people, rather than responding to their needs or goals. Further, Robert Levitus notes that mining-based solutions to Indigenous disadvantage have not answered the question: What happens when the mine closes? Some Indigenous Australians will be prepared to join the ranks of the mobile workforce, and relocate to other mine sites. However, access to one’s traditional lands remains a key Indigenous aspiration — and many, therefore, will not wish to chase the ore trucks to other mines.

The pro-mining narrative can be viewed as merely the latest in a series of "solutions" — from assimilation to self-determination to "mainstreaming" — that have been imposed on Indigenous people. Each such narrative has had its own ideological and pragmatic underpinnings: it is notable that the "community uplift" drive to employ Indigenous people on mines coincides with a skills shortage and a governmental desire to reduce its welfare burden. Relevantly, Power, Culture, Economy queries the legitimacy of the state’s role as neutral arbiter in interactions between proponents and Indigenous groups.

Katherine Trebeck explores instances of governments’ preparedness to side with companies facing opposition from Indigenous groups, including the Western Australian government’s 1992 legislation exempting the Marandoo project from the Aboriginal Heritage Act. Such examples partially explain why the helping hands of government and industry are viewed with some scepticism by many Indigenous people. The author explores the shift from such oppositional tactics to the current focus on a "social licence to mine", but notes that Indigenous groups’ ability to engage with a company on an equal basis remains limited.

The monograph examines the view, recently articulated by Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin, that agreements formed under the Native Title Act are appropriate vehicles for broad community development. This view is controversial for a number of reasons. Firstly, the provision of services to communities is an obligation borne by government to all citizens. Secondly, the language used often elides the distinction between native title holders and Indigenous communities.

It is worth restating that the Native Title Act offers limited recognition of proprietary rights possessed by specific land-holding entities such as tribal or language groups. "Native title agreements" are private contracts negotiated by these groups to obtain compensation for impacts on their proprietary rights. Compulsory distribution of moneys from agreements to "the Indigenous community" more generally would undermine the rights recognised in the Native Title Act. Recent government statements have given native title holders cause for concern: Macklin proposed that agreements be overseen by a commonwealth officer to monitor their "sustainability". The added level of bureaucracy contrasts markedly with the free financial agency enjoyed by other citizens in a liberal democratic society.

Altman and his co-authors observe that government pronouncements regarding agreements tend not to acknowledge the limited nature of native title rights. As David Martin notes, such rights are inherently fragile, exacerbating a power imbalance that makes a poor basis for robust agreements. The "great Australian paradox" of "land-rich and dirt-poor" Indigenous people is illusory: the limited nature of native title and land rights give the lie to the first half of the cliché while helping to explain the second. Indigenous peoples were certainly "land rich" prior to colonisation, but successive governments have shown little inclination to allow them to remain so.

Other chapters explore problems inherent in community engagement, with Robert Levitus reminding us that "community" is a slippery construct. A remote or regional town or community will likely contain members of several different language groups. Some may be traditional owners of the land on which the town or community is located; others will not have traditional rights in the area. The "community" with which third parties seek to engage may not be organic, and attempts to divide resources among its members can create or exacerbate conflict.

Also explored are problems experienced by the corporations and trusts established to implement agreements. Clearly, there are challenges in maintaining legitimacy within both a local Indigenous constituency and a mainstream regulatory system. Martin notes the weight of expectation and the competing obligations such organisations bear, and emphasises the need for effective governance mechanisms. In examining specific trusts, the essays demonstrate that distribution has been a vexed issue, with one community taking the view that it has "the richest trusts but the poorest people".

This nuanced collection of research essays attests to the complexities in interactions between Indigenous communities and industry. An appreciation of the issues involved ought to guard policy-makers against monolithic top-down "solutions". Whether the research is heeded, however, remains to be seen. In the meantime, blanket assumptions that mining is "good" for Indigenous people demonstrate ignorance, not understanding, of both mining and Indigenous communities.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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