The mismatch between indigenous communities and mining wealth


Oliver Balch, Guardian Professional –

Date of publication: 
15 November 2013

Indigenous communities rarely reap the benefits of mining and attempts by companies to redress the balance often fall short

“It shouldn’t be like this. It’s a rich country… for some”, reflects the veteran left-wing journalist and filmmaker John Pilger in his new documentary about the plight of Australia’s indigenous community.

Utopia, which opens in UK cinemas today, offers a searing critique of what Pilger describes as Australia’s “hidden secret”. In the opening sequences, the viewer is taken from a Palm Beach apartment renting at AUS$30,000 (£17,388) per week to a police station foyer where a young indigenous Australian male is beaten and later dies.

The juxtaposition between Australia’s affluent classes, buoyed by a prolonged mining boom, and the grudging poverty of its native populations crops up throughout the film. Pilger seems genuinely bewildered by the gulf. When he questions Warren Snowdon, a long-term parliamentarian in Australia’s Northern Territories, about this manifest development gap, he’s told that his question is “puerile” and “stupid”.

Is that fair? According to the Australian government’s own figures (PDF), mining is the “main reason” for a 78% increase in the country’s terms of trade between 2004 and 2011. As a percentage of total national investment, mining’s portion shot up from 8% to 31% over the same period. Is it really “puerile” to ask if some of the benefits of Australia’s mining boom might accrue to the country’s native communities?

Pilger certainly thinks not. He cites the case of Roeburne, located in Western Australia’s Pilbara region: “It’s right at the centre of one of the world’s greatest resource ‘gold rushes’, yet its people remain impoverished and the children stricken with preventable diseases; many are partially deaf.”

On the face of it, the global mining industry appears to be responding. Take the International Council for Mining and Metals (ICMM). The London-based trade body, whose 22 corporate members operate more than 800 mine sites in over 60 countries, issued a position statement on indigenous rights five years ago. The document, which was updated last May, calls on companies to show “mutual respect” and deliver “mutual benefit”.

The industry’s big guns seem to be listening. Only last month, Australia’s BHP Billiton announced an AUS$10m education fund to finance 90 scholarships for indigenous students. The likes of Rio Tinto, Anglo American and Gold Corp all boast similar initiatives. Yet the complaints and conflicts go on, so where’s the mismatch?

At least three major obstacles stand in the way. First is the question of commitment. Many seemingly well-intentioned development efforts by corporations are either too little or too late. It’s all very well to provide a handful of jobs or scholarships, Pilger argues, but these have “almost no positive bearing” on the systemic problems of housing, sanitation, health and so forth that many indigenous groups face.

The Wayúu in Colombia provide a case in point. Comprising over two-fifths of the population of north-western state of La Guajira, home to the country’s largest coal mine, they scrape a meagre living as subsistence farmers and herders. Not only has none of the wealth from the Cerrejón mine trickled their way, they have had to suffer the health impacts of air and water pollution to boot, Wayúu leaders say.

“If the charitable foundation of the company comes and offers people something, they will take it because they are desperate but it doesn’t cover all their needs”, says Jackeline Epiayu, a Wayúu human rights campaigner. Even then, only a “minimal fraction” of the Wayúu communities receives support, says Epiayu, leading her to conclude that such programmes are “mere window dressing”.

The second major barrier is that of historical context. Native communities, by definition, preceded those that came after. That makes extractive companies the newbies. If nothing else, this single fact demands that they are respected. Hence, the insistence by indigenous communities of their right to be listened to and to say “no” to mining projects should they so wish – what’s known in policy circles as “Free, Prior and Informed Consent”. The revised ICMM norms water down this commitment by giving the final word to host governments, argues First People Worldwide, a global indigenous rights organisation.

Historical context also demands that companies are seen to tackle the injustices of yesteryear, not just those of today. Pilger’s film is littered with examples of atrocities against Australia’s indigenous peoples that have never been officially admitted, let alone addressed. For abuses in which companies are involved, even if only indirectly or under different ownership, appropriate restitution or compensation is a must for winning trust. In other cases, companies should be actively lobbying the government to set the past straight.

The final, and arguably most significant, obstacle is cultural. Indigenous communities follow “fundamentally different norms” from western-minded, neoliberal-oriented corporations, argues Jon Altman, professor in anthropology at the Australian National University (and one of Pilger’s interviewees). It’s not that indigenous people don’t want development; it’s just that many don’t want the kind of development that multinational companies are offering.

“We need to redefine what we mean by development”, argues Bobby Banerjee, professor of management at London’s Cass Business School. Work needs to be done to design income-generating models that concur with indigenous customs and beliefs, particularly those related to the sanctity of nature. “Economic development that comes at the price of social dislocation and environmental degradation is certainly not a preferred outcome”, he argues.

Mining corporations could certainly go a lot further in mitigating their impacts on indigenous peoples. Even then, the notion that the two can somehow live together in a harmonious utopia still seems highly optimistic. More realistic, perhaps, is a fragile armistice.