This is an excerpt from Building Power: A Guide for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders Who Want to Change the World. You can download the full guide from Original Power.
The following key ingredients are what people and communities have learnt and what you need to consider as you take on mining and resource proponents and projects. Some communities may still decide to choose mining. If you do, these ingredients still matter because they are the essence of self-determination and effective negotiation for outcomes that match your goals.
These ingredients have come from interviews, discussions, meetings and campaigning with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities impacted by the mining industry. It is important to recognise that mining occurs in the context of existing disadvantage and struggles for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It is clear that there are factors which impact a community’s ability to challenge a mining company. These factors can be distilled into key ingredients which include things like: having access to expertise, understanding underlying motivations, solid leadership, decision-making, resourcing and agency. These ingredients influence the way people are able to make decisions about, saying no to, or organise around how a mining company sets up, expands operations or shuts down and exits.
This is not to suggest that all of these six ingredients are important in every case, but they are worth considering when thinking about how best to build the power of communities in what is essentially an unequal and complex space. These ingredients have been tested in relation to resource extraction; however, they would certainly be relevant for building and strengthening community responses to other issues.
Different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people hold different knowledge and responsibilities when it comes to lore and custom, caring for country and sacred sites and passing on this wisdom. Ensuring that the right people with the right knowledge are part of decision-making is important.
One of the things that can happen within Native Title, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (ALRA), Indigenous Land Use Agreements (ILUAs) and other agreement making processes is that traditional forms of knowledge, understanding and connection to country may not be adequately considered.
Both the Native Title Act (NTA) and the ALRA are premised on recognising the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to make choices over how lands are used and to withhold or give consent to development projects including mining. These rights are not automatically recognised, and whether communities are actively able to enjoy these rights is complicated to say the least. There has been considerable analysis and criticism of the Native Title process itself including the false geographical boundaries divisions between communities, Traditional Owner groups and families that are created and the limited benefits native title has brought to our peoples.
There are also key articles in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that refer to free, prior and informed consent. Even if there are no consent provisions in the law (there is not under the NTA, but there is under the ALRA) information is power for either resistance or negotiation.
In addition to having the right people in the process, having access to external expertise can significantly change the way a community sees a potential mining project. Most com- munities found that information provided by scientists, geologists, environmentalists and others provided evidence critical to informed decision making. Community members also talked about external experts providing the Western form of evidence they needed to support their existing knowledge of the country. For example: Knowing that nuclear waste is poison and there’s no safe way to contain it, knowing exactly how much water would be damaged by chemicals in the fracturing process, understanding the geology of a mine site and the impacts of floods on tailings containment and so on. Similarly, scientific knowledge complements extensive existing understanding of climate change and its impacts on country, hunting, sacred sites and so on. As well as the impact of extreme weather events on current mines, waste dams through floods, cyclones etc on current and future mine sites and projects.
The other kinds of knowledge that have proven to be useful are skills for campaigning, organising, lobbying or launching a legal challenge. Many communities noted the value of knowing legal avenues to withdraw consent, mechanisms to challenge a company’s practices, or explore putting restrictions on a proposed operation, or advocating for a better deal in the negotiation.
Of course, there is also extensive documentation and analysis about the issues related to the role of land councils and other prescribed bodies, companies and the negotiation process itself. Councils are federally funded to represent communities – ‘clients’ and increasingly use third party developers to fast track outcomes, increasing the potential for conflicts of interest. Who controls the negotiation process can also impact on who controls the knowledge and external expertise brought in.
Logistical arrangements must be considered, how people are able to get to meetings, whether or not translation is provided, who pays for such arrangements and so on. All of these things impact the independence of a meeting and who attends. Having as much knowledge as possible about this part of the process is key in the early stages of a mining project. How a meeting is framed is also important; framing sets parameters for negotiation.
The final piece to consider in regards to knowledge is whether the community has access to knowledge and potential resources to pursue alternatives to mining.
Understanding what might motivate a whole community or individual community members to withhold consent or give support to mining seems obvious yet is a critical part of working out how to respond.
This is all about interests, understanding what you want and why. It is also about honestly looking at what are people’s underlying needs. What is behind people’s position on mining? Who and what influences people’s position? How are you and your community assessing that?
Mining is often presented as the only economic option or ‘choice’ for many remote and regional communities experiencing limited resourcing and government services. There may be limited employment options or overcrowded housing. In this context the potential economic opportunities presented by mining in the form of agreements payments (often called royalties), a number of new jobs, or a bus for the school, appears as the only viable economic option. This can be one of the most compelling reasons why people might agree to mining.
However, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples living with mines are extremely disadvantaged. The number of jobs is often vastly overestimated and not always taken up by local people. And often, the mining royalty equivalents or agreement payments which are paid to Aboriginal interests may end up funding services that should be provided by the Government.
“We have in the past signed IULAs and 20 years on we have nothing and this is the legacy that mining has left on our country. It has torn our families apart. And where are the benefits we are supposed to have received? We have nothing. All the promises mean nothing, we still have high rates of homelessness and the dynamics in our communities are still disrupted by colonialism. That’s why I’m one of the objectors.” Murrawah Johnson – Wangan and Jagalingou
A mining company may present all kinds of cash or non-cash incentives to try and ‘motivate’ people towards a particular outcome. Knowing people’s interests, needs and concerns is helpful in assessing whether there is genuine consent for a project.
On the flip side of this, many people are motivated by protecting country and ensuring its sustainability for generations to come. Communities want to be able to access hunting and fishing grounds, sacred sites and places of ceremony. Ensuring these motivations are given weight and properly heard is incredibly important.
“Be confident in saying no. What’s more important? Country and our culture are more important than money that’s only going to benefit a few people.” Clayton Simpson – Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay
“Don’t worry about the money, it’s not your culture, money is nothing to us. So don’t think about money. The land is more important, the land got the story it is strong for me and you to walk around.” Aunty Nancy McDinny – Garawa/Yanyuwa
“You gotta campaign. You gotta be really strong and get to know your weakness and use that towards your strengths to go out there. The land has been poisoned – enough is enough for us. Leave it for the next generation. The money is no good, you preserve your language and your country. You got no country you got no language. Our dreaming goes through there. The three things you need – language, land and your dreaming.” Aunty PP – Warumungu (talking about stopping the nuclear waste dump in Muckaty)
It is critical that there is transparency around what the consultation and decision-making processes are and who is participating in them in relation to exploration and mining. It is not uncommon for mining companies to separate family or community members and run private meetings. Knowing who participates in what and who can make decisions is crucially important, keeping in mind who is authorised to negotiate can be prescribed by Native Title processes. The role of land councils or other bodies in leading the negotiations similarly needs to be understood.
There is no uniform way in which mining companies engage with communities. So, it follows there is no guarantee the whole community would be aware that negotiations for exploration or mining are being undertaken. Sometimes it takes one or two people to point to an issue in the process or raise a concern about a proposed project to interrupt the flow.
From conversations with communities dealing with resource extraction, the early raising of concerns is very important. Often the people who do this ultimately lead an intervention in the process of a project going ahead.
“We had a strong leader in my Uncle Adrian who stood up and said no one is going to allow anyone to destroy our water and culture … if we are who we say we are, we wouldn’t allow for the destruction of it.” Murrawah Johnson – Wangan and Jagalingou
If a group or entire community want to challenge a mine or project having a strong leader or number of significant leaders or elders who are taking a clear position is critical. Those leaders need to be respected and people that others will work with. The leadership also needs to acknowledge that there may be a need for representatives from different clans or families and be prepared to work across those groups. It’s also important to consider how leaders making decisions can be held to account for those decisions by their people.
“Those leaders who do make mining agreements have to live with those decisions knowing the impact it will have on generations to come. It could take hundreds of years for land to be back to what it was before it was contaminated. Spills are irreversible, these are things these people gotta live with.” Boe Spearim Gamilaraay/Kooma
Of course, some negotiations processes and even having to make decisions around mining can lead to or deepen existing tensions in the community. The pressure of people’s daily lives and the desire to bring money into a place that has limited resources is bound to raise all kinds of issues. The divisive nature of these projects needs to be considered and dealt with by the community. And it is often up to strong people and leaders, of all kinds, to bring people through this as united and unharmed as possible.
Leaders can inspire, influence and mobilise a group and they can certainly affect the out- come of negotiations. Anecdotal evidence from most communities spoken to suggest that. How a community gets behind their leaders can also impact on how a community may unite or not and subsequently the power of that community to say no to mining.
4. Community processes (decision making)
Decision making in each community looks vastly different depending on context, history, relationships, connection to country and governance arrangements. Decision making specifically around mining is also impacted by Native Title or Land Rights legal arrangements. Not all communities have access to traditional decision-making process, many have a mix of contemporary arrangements and traditional structures. It’s useful to know what kinds of structures bring community together to enable them to share information and make decisions and what decisions they are empowered to make. People need access to information and knowledge in order to have a say on decisions that impact on their lives.
There has been much thinking done around self-determination and its relationship to ‘good’ governance in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs. Four attributes to consider include; legitimacy, power and decision-making authority, resources and accountability. It is therefore important to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander institutions and organisations which encompass these attributes and manage community affairs. (see also Facilitator Resource on Building Nations). Understanding the kinds of mechanisms and decision making processes that need to be in place to support communities to make decisions that are in line with achieving and practicing self-determination is important.
This ingredient has many elements but essentially we are talking about peoples capacity to engage in decision making, to be informed about their options, but also to have real choices— choices that are not constrained by scarcity of resources, threats of withdrawal of funds either by government or mining companies or the daily circumstances already mentioned.
The other element to this that must be considered is the role of land councils and other bodies that are part of the Native Title processes and given the role of bringing people together to negotiate decisions. Land councils are largely relied upon to organise meetings to talk about a specific proposal. How does this really enable people to independently make up their minds? What mechanisms outside of this process exist? Who runs them? Who pays for them? How are decisions made?
Some communities have initiated their own community meetings, some have established family organisations or councils, in part as a response to concerns with the way land councils and other bodies were conducting meetings and negotiations.
Are the community unified on their response or opinion to the proposed project? Or is there a majority view and if so, how is the minority feeling, are their viewpoints being considered?
Many experts in the area of negotiation and agreement making suggest that unity also is a critical issue. Whether people agree or disagree with mining the fact is when a community is united they have more power to get what they want. United communities have more power than divided communities. Therefore, having decision making processes that enable groups to come together are really critical.
Resourcing can take many forms. It can include the skills, experience and knowledge a community has from dealing with resource extraction and mining projects in the past. Or learned from the experiences of others. It could be about looking at alternatives like renewables, eco-tourism, art projects and having access to the right people and capital to pursue those options. It’s also useful to consider that resources and capacity a community has also influence people’s motivations. Limited resources may mean the promise of employment through mining is more persuasive.
Although many interviewed understood that even though the promise of short terms resourcing through ‘royalty’ payments and so on is tempting they felt it wouldn’t provide the long term structural solutions their communities needed.
“The life of a mine really isn’t that long, the mining industry is not sustainable. We need to think about long term strategies to build our communities.” Boe Spearim Gamilaraay/Kooma
“We know even if we agreed to this mine, mining won’t last forever.” Gadrian Hoosan Garrawa/Yanyuwa
In some communities where the Government has reduced or withdrawn services, there may be reliance on mining companies to fund services. This can mean communities are beholden to companies and may be unable to effectively raise any issues associated with the mine. People also noted their concerns about what happens when a mining company withdraws from community and that they may be leaving behind services without funding, assets that can’t be maintained. This is usually on top of the enormous environmental cleanup and rehabilitation costs that are rarely properly funded by polluters.
In addition, people need to factor in time away from their daily lives to take on campaigning. As well as the potential costs of legal challenges organising community meetings and so on. Thinking about and mapping what kinds of skills and capacities the community has to organise and respond is really important. From here you can see the gaps and work out how and what kind of additional support you might need.
6. Agency and power
One of the key lessons from communities fighting mining projects is about needing to have political power. And for the most part that power is collective power. But it’s also about being organised and effective. There is an enormous power imbalance in the way the system of Native title and mining negotiations work. If communities are not organised and working together their ability to take a stand and win is compromised. Building that power and cohesion can take time.
In order to make change you need to believe your actions will make a difference. Taking action is therefore linked to both your capacity to act and a belief in your power, or that you can create power. Rebuilding a sense of agency in peoples who have had considerable power taken from them can be a slow and complex process. This is not to assume all people are powerless or passive. One of the key factors in people being able to change their own circumstances or engage in broader community affairs is having the internal drive and capacity to act. Of course this capacity is also impacted by your circumstances, living conditions or it may be about having the right tools and skills to make that difference.
One of the things this guide hopes to do is develop a common language among those sharing similar struggles. For some people, how they fight to protect country is thought of as a campaign; others consider it fulfilling cultural responsibility and people may not think of themselves as campaigners or activists. There is use in linking what may be thought of as individual struggles to other campaigns and national organisiations and social movements. How are other mobs organising and fighting? What has their collective power looked like?
How have they won, what can we learn from them?
When it comes to rebuilding our sense of power and our real power there are words of wisdom from mob to mob about this. “A few years ago when the Muckaty mob won it shows you can beat these massive multinational companies … It wasn’t just a win for one community it was a win for all of us.” Boe Spearim Gamilaraay/Kooma
It’s also important that alongside planning and building the collective power within a community that there are also processes that include visioning alternatives to mining. This is a critical element of communities genuinely having other economic and long-term development options.
Words of advice from one mob to another:
“Ask as many questions as you can. Make sure you know what you are signing off on”.
Jordan Wimbis – Wakka Wakka
“Reach out. There’s other communities that are fighting against mining and all that. There’s a lot of people who want to help to protect country.”
Scott McDinny – Garrawa/Yanyuwa
“We’ve always been fighters our people. The only way for us now is up. A big shout out to all mobs fighting against the destruction of country, stay strong. Know that what you’re doing is right. You’re never alone we’re always with you. Keep the fire burning.”
Boe Spearim Gamilaraay/Kooma
“To give up now would be a disrespect to people who have fought before us and generations to come.”
Boe Spearim Gamilaraay/Kooma
- Aboriginal Australians
- Capacity building
- Indigenous peoples_First Nations
- Torres Strait Islanders