Bauxite mining increasingly on Indigenous peoples’ traditional lands

Globally, bauxite mining operations are increasingly sited on the traditional lands of Indigenous peoples, including Australia. For many Indigenous peoples, mining of their traditional land creates much concern about biocultural, community health and livelihood impacts from the loss of access to traditional lands and resources, and the ability to meet their cultural obligations.  Despite decades of mining in some bauxite regions, Indigenous peoples’ ability to effectively articulate and emphasise their concerns is constrained by an asymmetry of power and knowledge between communities on one side, and companies and governments on the other.

Improved understanding of mineral exploration and mining processes and decision-making pathways not only supports a Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process, but through this can also mitigate some of these impacts. An FPIC process will enable Indigenous communities to more equitably participate in exploration and mine development discussions, to share expectations and adequately address expected outcomes and, where mining occurs, to identify what should be monitored and evaluated for mine development, closure and relinquishment.

In many parts of the world, governments are promoting mineral exploration and mining, including the Northern Territory government and other Australian states, through grants, taxation benefits, support for infrastructure and facilitation of development approvals. The government support and incentives do not usually include participation by Indigenous peoples and communities in this process, although they often have frameworks for engagement. Re-settlement may require companies to undertake consultation and /or demonstrate local participation.

The history of bauxite exploration and mining in Australia is similar to that in other countries in that FPIC principles are generally not applied, and Indigenous peoples do not have adequate information or support to make informed decisions.  The intention of this project is not to support mining proponents, but to empower Indigenous communities to make their own determinations for land use and development as part of due process.  Capacity building models are urgently needed which are embedded within Indigenous communities themselves, and are not tied to a particular company, government or other vested interest.

Indigenous engagement pilot workshop in Arnhem Land

In September 2021, the Indigenous company Nawa Nawa Consultants and the Indigenous Gulkula Mining (Gulkula) company, in partnership with Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), identified the need to support an information sharing platform and test the concept through a pilot workshop focusing on culturally appropriate consultation with key Wäŋa Wataŋu (traditional owners) and Mala (clan) Leaders from the Yolŋu Nations to provide information on Minerals and Mining Exploration in East Arnhem.   Discussions with Nawa Nawa Consultants included the need to better understand mineral exploration and mining that the Northern Territory government is actively promoting, and consideration of what this could potentially look like in practice across the East Arnhem region.

The focus of both Gulkula and ASI is to develop a methodology that incorporates the best process for providing information to the Wäŋa Wataŋu and Mala Leaders from the Yolŋu Nations so that they can make more informed decisions about the natural resources on their Country. Another potential outcome of the discussions is a better understanding of the wider Yolŋu community’s perceptions of mining and all its facets.

The pilot workshop included a demonstration by Gulkula as to what mining is and the potential benefits for the Yolŋu community, as well as a presentation of ASI’s strong interest to develop and pilot a model that can build local capacity for self-determination, and which can have broader applicability within Australia and internationally.

Nawa Nawa Consultants facilitated a two-day pilot workshop of discussions at the Gulkula mine from 13-14 September 2021 with the participation of 11 Yolŋu community members. The attendees for the pilot workshop were key Yolŋu Mala Leaders, Wäŋa Wataŋu, Gulkula Mining, and ASI. Most of the conversations occurred at the training room onsite at Gulkula.  Nawa Nawa Consultants provided cross-cultural facilitation and contributed to the preparation of information to share at the workshop and design of the workshop format and program.

All workshop attendees were informed that this was to be the first step in a long journey and that Gulkula and ASI envisage broader sessions to be held with local communities and homelands as part of the future engagement process.

 

The eleven workshop Yolŋu community participants alongside representatives from ASI (right) and Gulkula (left).

 

The workshop focused on the following topics:

  • Yolŋu (Indigenous) Traditional Decision-Making Structures & Government Engagement Experiences.
  • Current Effectiveness of Community Engagement Approaches across East Arnhem communities.
  • Free Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) Principles: Critical factors required to underpin successful, respectful, culturally safe and informed engagement across East Arnhem region.
  • Information on mineral exploration and development: mineral resource ownership, exploration tenements, exploration process and decision making, mining development, the regulatory environment, what is the aluminium industry and what is aluminium used for, ASI certification, environmental management, mine closure and social license to operate principles.

Key workshop outcomes

The strong message from the senior Indigenous people participating in the pilot workshop was that the experience was extremely valuable.  They expressed the need for more workshops for others;  to hold workshops in the communities, on their traditional lands and in the bush where the bauxite is;  to share information in a culturally appropriate and safe way, in the local language(s);  and provide a safe platform for discussion and information sharing.

Nawa Nawa, Gulkula and ASI are working on next steps for continuing to develop and implement the consultation methodology for the East Arnhem region and more broadly. ASI considers the methodology developed by this process to be a template that can be adapted to suit Indigenous and other communities to better understand mineral exploration and mining in other regions around the world.