Issue #1565 19 September 2012
UN expert told of mining impacts
From a board room in the big smoke of Melbourne to rugged bush in the north of Western Australia, United Nations human rights expert James Anaya has heard from Aboriginal people about the impact of mining and related activities on their land.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was a high-level attendee at a two-day “extractive industries” roundtable hosted by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples in Melbourne on August 20-21.
Professor Anaya largely kept his views on the Australian experience close to his chest, preferring instead to use his trip to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and organisations, mining companies and government agencies to see what he might incorporate into international “best practice” guidelines on the subject to ensure respect for Indigenous human rights.
In the past, however, he has identified the impacts of extractive industries as a major source of abuse of Indigenous peoples’ rights globally.
At a press conference during the Melbourne forum, he said the experiences of Indigenous people around the world invariably involved “power imbalances, the difficult choices that Indigenous people face, and concern about governments not being somehow exonerated from their responsibilities to provide for citizens and provide services because industry is willing to step in or pressuring to step in”.
“What I’ve been hearing here in Australia is very much in line with what I am hearing on a global level and that’s why I’m doing this study, because we have these common patterns of problems and conditions that Indigenous peoples face,” he said.
“You can imagine that in many places, the problems are of the same nature but are all the deeper and more grave, the power imbalances are much more serious, the conditions of Indigenous people in certain places are much more desperate and companies are often working within much, much weaker regulatory frameworks so that we find, for example, environmental damage that’s been quite severe, at least until recently.
“That’s what strikes me, to sit here and hear many of the same kinds of issues being raised as I am hearing across the globe.”
Professor Anaya said that “for better or worse”, Indigenous peoples generally sat on vast resources.
“Many of the world’s remaining mineral and hydro-carbon resources are within Indigenous territories and I think it’s accurate to say that Indigenous peoples are disproportionately affected by the progress – what might be characterised as progress – or the march of industrial activity to harvest those remaining resources in the world,” he said. “And so, the problem has some urgency about it.”
Congress co-chair Les Malezer said the mining boom in Australia had heightened tensions in relationships between Indigenous communities and industry.
“With the discussions, when we tried to talk about development and how people wanted to develop economically, socially and so on, it was quiet because people are really operating under the pressures of day-to-day,” he said.
“They’re not really able to look and plan and to arrange themselves, to take control of what developments do come into their territories and what developments don’t... Of course the mining boom is a good thing for Australia, but it does create these pressure cooker situations,” said Mr Malezer.
In the days following the Melbourne forum, Professor Anaya was a guest of the Njamal people in the Pilbara, hearing about an agreement they’d struck with Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) in December 2011 to protect significant cultural sites and create a joint venture to run a mining operation on an ore body adjacent to FMG’s proposed North Star mine.
He also visited significant Njamal heritage sites, including rock art complexes, and spoke with the Njamal people about the effect that mining has had on their community.
Afterwards, the National Congress said the visit showed there were still deep concerns about maintaining culture and protecting significant sites while negotiating fair deals from mining companies that deliver opportunities.
“The Njamal people were up front about the long process to get where they have with FMG, and we support and respect them in their fight to get what they felt was necessary,” said Congress co-chair Jody Broun.
“... If anything, these visits showed us why it’s vital that our peoples are supported in their self-determination with standards based on a rights framework and that state and federal legislation must be consistent with that framework.”
Njamal Elder Doris Eaton said Professor Anaya’s trip had been a good opportunity to show him and the wider community “what the Njamal people have achieved through our agreement with FMG”.
“It is important that people see the beauty of our country first hand so that we can all work together to protect our culture, heritage and stories,” she said.
Extractive industries will also be discussed at the National Congress annual gathering to be held in Alice Springs later this month.
Next article – West Papua outrage and the Australian connection
Back to index page