Ancient sites and sacred snake increase risk to Australia’s resources

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The industry, which meets on Monday for the three-day Diggers and Dealers conference at the edge of a massive gold mine in Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, is already facing the threat of increasing restrictions on emissions, as well as ‘to a political row with China, its biggest buyer. Now, indigenous communities are fighting for a greater role to protect their culture from resource extraction and agriculture.

“The new legislation will put Aborigines at the center of decision-making,” the government of Western Australia said in an emailed statement. “One of the main objectives of the bill is to ensure that aboriginal people have custody of their heritage.

Australia ranks among the top producers of metals ranging from gold to lithium and some investors fear that if the rules do not provide enough collateral to traditional landowners, it could increase the risk of another damaging incident.

The proposed new law will seek to strike a balance between giving indigenous peoples a stronger voice, without hampering growth in a resource industry estimated to have generated a record A $ 310 billion in export revenue during the fiscal year. 2021. Australia ranks among the top producers of lithium gold metals and some investors fear that if the rules do not provide traditional landowners with enough collateral, it could increase the risk of another damaging incident.

“This is a unique opportunity to get legislation and not just try to fix it around the edges,” said Mary Delahunty, impact manager at the Hesta pension fund, which has around $ 60 billion. Australian assets. She said the OA government’s draft proposal does not appear to go far enough to give indigenous groups a stronger voice.

The traditional owners agree.

“The current project will not prevent another Juukan gorge,” said Wayne Bergmann, acting chief executive of the Kimberley Land Council, which represents indigenous landowners in the far north of the state. Bergmann is concerned that, under the proposed legislation, the final decision as to whether work can be done in an area of ​​cultural significance will still be the responsibility of the minister in power at the time, rather than a body of ‘independent experts.

“Basically, the investment community has to be concerned because this puts projects at risk,” Bergmann said. The government says it was still drafting the bill and had already made several revisions based on stakeholder feedback.

Rio, the world’s largest iron ore miner, said it is prioritizing cultural heritage and environmental issues in the wake of Juukan Gorge and has established an indigenous advisory committee to enhance its engagement with local communities. The London-based company said in April it had screened more than 1,300 Pilbara sites for their potential impact on cultural heritage, with additional guarantees later resulting in the removal of 54 million tonnes of dry ore from its reserves.

The fallout from Juukan Gorge affects more than just the mining industry. The new legislation will also affect agriculture.

One example is the plight of sawfish, which are threatened by demands from breeding stations that extract water from the Fitzroy River, one of the last nursery habitats of endangered freshwater sawfish. critical extinction, which can reach 7 meters in length.

The distinctive stingrays, with their chainsaw-shaped snouts, are considered in native culture to be protectors of the river. The species’ global range has declined by more than 60% since the turn of the century, according to a 2019 study by the Harry Butler Institute at Murdoch University.

The WA government extended the consultation process on the Fitzroy River water management plans until the end of August.

The task of legislators is complicated by the fact that the new rules must protect not only historic sites and the environment, but also cultural beliefs.

When iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest proposed to build weirs on one of his ranching stations to hold water from the Ashburton River, the plan was rejected by the state government due to its potential impact on the rainbow snake, which, according to Aboriginal culture, resides in the river. . Forrest’s legal team is appealing the decision, arguing that the weirs will have minimal impact on the river’s flow and the snake will still be able to move freely.

Night parrot

Forrest, who has a doctorate in marine ecology, has been a strong supporter of the aboriginal community – natives make up about 12% of the Australian workforce in his Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. The company is committed to protecting the endangered nocturnal parrot, which was feared to have gone extinct prior to a 2005 sighting near the group’s Cloudbreak mine in Pilbara.

Delahunty de Hesta says landowner groups should have veto power over projects, which would reassure investors that the concerns of local communities are taken seriously. “This is important not only from a reconciliation perspective, but also for the bottom line of the business.”

Mysterious Australian night parrots in natural environment. Credit: Steve Murphy, Charles Darwin University.

The WA government has said it will not include a veto, which would “be an obstacle to making deals.”

Meanwhile, resource companies recognize that their social license to operate is under more scrutiny than ever. Former Rio CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and other senior executives have resigned following the Juukan Gorge incident. Since Jacques left, shares in Rio have gained around 28% in London as iron ore prices soared, but the FTSE All-Share Industrial Metals and Mining Index has more than doubled in the meantime .

“Australia is watching,” Delahunty said. “The investment community is watching this process because under our watch we will not have another one of these incidents.”

(By James Thornhill, with assistance from Sanjit Das)


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