More than diamonds in the rough: resource struggles in the Kimberley

Aboriginal (Kija, Malnjin, Mirawoonga and Worla) cultural law holds that Argyle mine’s pink diamonds are scales of the female Baramundi creative Dreaming Being. Swamibu/Flickr

On Tuesday Lateline ran a story built around a report: “Developing the West Kimberley’s Resources” that the program breathlessly presented as a “secret plan” to industrialise the region, unlock its resources and fuel a new minerals boom. In fact, the report has been around since 2005 and has been widely read.

The real question in the Kimberley is: can miners and governments learn the lessons of past developments in Australia and develop an enlightened policy that benefits them, the local landholders and the national interest?

The Kimberley is a place where the very worst, and potentially, the very best of mining, agriculture and other industrial developments are occurring. Argyle Diamonds is arguably a model of the very best. One manager, Brendan Hammond, retrieved a disastrous situation in which a sacred site was mined for diamonds. Through Hammond, the company sought forgiveness from the local elders and brought the local Aboriginal community into a unique “Good Neighbour” partnership that has led to ongoing prosperity for both the company and the community.

However it is probably the case that, despite the efforts of dedicated individuals in its midst, the Argyle parent company, Rio Tinto, has never really understood the benefits that it has accrued because it took this path. Other companies, led by one-dimensional, can-do engineers, just do not get it. They are looking for the shortest path to the extraction of minerals or energy sources and if that means riding over the top of the local Aboriginal community, so be it.

Others simply want “political” understandings with Aborigines that are not in keeping with cultural law or best practice agreement making. Woodside’s arguably doomed LNG Precinct is the latest disaster in this respect. Companies cannot afford to ride the tiger of manifold community, governmental and national protest in delicate and important operations. Most of all they are foolish to discount Aboriginal cultural law.

So what should governments, miners and developers be doing? Its relatively simple.

1) Follow the UN protocol of Free, Informed, Prior Consent for the development of the traditional lands of Indigenous people, even where company lawyers might suggest that this is unnecessary or can be bulldozed over.

2) Provide Indigenous peoples with a partnership and revenue-sharing arrangement in the development of the mine or project, with any returns invested in the long term educational and infrastructure needs of the community.

3) Create contracts which benefit local Indigenous companies.

4) Provide a guaranteed level of employment for local Indigenous people in the operations of the project.

5) The ultimate benchmark, learning from the Pilbara, is that there should be no poverty in any Indigenous community within 500km of the mine or development site.

If these protocols are guaranteed, then whichever company develops the vast minerals of the region will make potentially hundreds of billions of dollars. It is not just that such an agreement is a special interest or land owner interest.

No, this goes far beyond the sort of agreement that makes Gina Rinehart the richest woman in the world. By the nature of any such arrangement, the environment will invariably be protected, the best sites and ways of mining will be chosen and there will be no political obstacles to the companies’ operations. Companies will be working with the best local knowledge money can buy.

This is hardly rocket science. But it is hard to get into the consciousness of mining executives. Despite many decades of experience, company bosses and politicians alike make the mistake of thinking that they can get agreements to proceed by consulting with one or two token Indigenous leaders. The token figures then charge great sums to go about running mock Western style meetings in which the consultations take place.

The facts are that by properly negotiating with traditional people and being forced to listen to their concerns, by bringing them in as full partners in the project, employing them in the project and paying due regard to ceremony and custom, great prosperity ensues.

By the way, those pink diamonds mined at Argyle are the scales of the sacred Barramundi. I can’t understand why they are not more actively marketed that way and why Miriwoong, Malngin, Kija and Worla women and their stories about the female creative Barrimundi dreaming being are not featured in Paris and Milan. Mining companies still have so much to learn.

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