The global mining industry is at a critical juncture in its engagement with First Nations communities, with progress on economic participation and employment being tempered by ongoing challenges around cultural heritage and land use.
The destruction of Indigenous heritage sites in the western Pilbara in 2020, which attracted world headlines, has brought the relationship between mining leaders and traditional landowners into sharp focus. But while there continues to be challenges around environmental and cultural heritage, attention is also focusing on how mining can boost the employment, skills and economic participation of the First Nations communities in which they operate.
This year’s International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) is taking place on Gomora land (Sydney) of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and will feature first nations speakers from around the globe exploring these complex challenges.
IMARC Conference & Partnerships Director Sherene Asnasyous says this year’s event features the largest indigenous delegation and the highest number of first nations speakers in the conference’s 10-year history.
“We are privileged to host such a diverse range of indigenous delegations from around the world at IMARC, which is a testament to the growing recognition of the perspectives and contributions of indigenous communities within the mining sector,” she says.
“IMARC 2023 will feature an unprecedented number of first nations speakers, providing a unique opportunity for their voices to be heard and their insights to be valued. This year’s event marks a significant step towards greater inclusivity and diversity in the global mining industry.”
Australia: Some progress, but more work to do
From an Australian perspective, mining has long been one of the largest employers of First Nations people and while levels of economic participation and employment continue to rise, there remains concerns that the industry does not always uphold the social license the community expects.
Ian Hamm, Chair of the First Nations Foundation, an organisation dedicated to providing financial education and support to Indigenous Australians, observes that we are currently at a pivotal juncture when it comes to relations between the mining industry and indigenous communities. He believes mining companies are increasingly receptive to supporting communities, and Indigenous Australians are increasingly able to negotiate a more equitable share of the benefits.
“The shift in perspective towards Aboriginal communities is crucial and viewing them as partners rather than mere stakeholders with rights is fundamental,” Mr Hamm says.
“When assessing partnerships between resource companies and Aboriginal communities, the focus should be on equality and long-term advantages, not just immediate problem-solving.
“The key question is whether both sides are learning and progressing together, rather than merely addressing the current situation. This contrasts with past government interventions that primarily aimed to prevent immediate issues, without considering long-term impact. This mindset is finally starting to change,” he says.
Mr Hamm will join other First Nations speakers at IMARC this year, including Christina Coleman, the Co-Lead of Indigenous Women in Mining and Resource Australia (IWIMRA), which was created to raise the profile of Indigenous women in the mining and resources industry and build a community to engage in conversation with women across the industry.
Ms Coleman says one of the biggest challenges facing the economic participation of First Nations communities is the enormous scale of projects and the disparity between the large operators and often very small local Indigenous suppliers.
“Despite all the productive and collaborative work between mining companies and Indigenous communities, gaining access to contracts and work still remains an ongoing concern,” she says.
“The biggest challenge we are still facing is in regards to compliance. Big companies make it incredibly hard for small businesses to weave and navigate their way through the bureaucratic requirements for a local Indigenous corporation to become a partner or a subcontractor.
“We constantly hear from our colleagues that if you don’t have assistance in steering through the paperwork, you’re going to fail.”
Ms Coleman says the role of First Nations women in the mining and resources sector also represents an opportunity for the industry.
“Indigenous women are identified as the cornerstone of many families and communities and their participation and influence can be utilised to strengthen relations within the Indigenous workforce and to promote retention initiatives.”
Australian mining companies have been working to address these issues and remain committed to improving the lives of First Nations People. BHP for instance has determined four key priorities though consultation and engagement. These areas are economic empowerment; social and cultural support; public engagement and governance.
The global view
The challenges and opportunities faced by the Australian mining sector are not unique and they resonate worldwide.
In Canada, for example, mining companies have been actively collaborating with indigenous communities to offer training and employment opportunities. These programs are geared towards equipping indigenous individuals with the skills and expertise needed to secure employment within the mining industry.
JP Gladu is Strategic Advisor to the First Nations Major Projects Coalition and Principal of Mokwateh. His expertise is in providing long-term strategic advice that provides sustainable economic development to support Indigenous people across Canada break the cycle of disadvantage and retain their cultural identity.
Mr Gladu notes that even though Canada has implemented strong requirements for mining companies to engage collaboratively with Indigenous communities, Indigenous Canadians still struggle to access capital.
“Accessing capital remains a significant challenge for Indigenous communities. Overcoming this hurdle is crucial for our country’s progress to improving the lives of Indigenous Canadians. As it stands, banks in Canada are unlikely to lend to Indigenous communities given the lack of security against the loan,” he says.
“To drive sustainable growth, we must find ways to assess and mitigate risks effectively, facilitating access to affordable capital. This, in turn, empowers Indigenous communities to participate in long-term infrastructure projects, ultimately breaking free from the cycle of poverty and providing for future generations without relying on government intervention.”
“Balance for Better” – highlighting best practice
In the past, governments and mining companies showed little consideration for how mining impacted Indigenous communities. Environmental standards were low, indigenous people were often displaced for mining operations, and little attention was given to their cultural heritage or economic inclusion. The focus was primarily on maximising exploration, extraction and processing quickly and inexpensively.
In this context, IMARC 2023 will feature a range of presentations, panels and discussions focusing on how mining can:
- develop better indigenous partnerships that support shared prosperity;
- create community and environmental opportunities throughout the life of a mine;
- drive positive ESG (Environment, Sustainability and Governance) outcomes for both companies and communities; and
- create real value for stakeholders and host communities.
The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and the Native Title Act 1993 were pivotal in granting formal land ownership and control to Indigenous Australians, necessitating formal negotiations for mining access.
As the industry grappled with these changes, companies – most for the first time – faced organised resistance from groups advocating for guaranteed recognition of Indigenous rights and fair terms for cultural, social, and economic futures.
This rise of advocacy coincided with growing environmental awareness, which resulted in policies like the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This prompted a transformation in relationships between mining companies and Indigenous communities, shifting from command and control to cooperation and collaboration, grounded in mutual respect and shared interests in the land.
IMARC’s Sherene Asnasyous says the event’s Balance for Better agenda is all about highlighting the impact and achievements of equality, diversity and inclusion in mining while also reflecting the strides being made industry-wide to be more equitable and showcase the industry-wide benefits of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“There are over 135 speakers at IMARC, representing a range of minorities in mining from financial, technical, operational and leadership roles, many whom champion diversity and inclusion with their colleagues from across the industry,” she says.
Speakers at IMARC this year include Vanessa Elliot from the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland and Florence Drummond, co-founder of IWIMRA and now Executive Director of the Development Partner Institute.
Ms Drummond says First Nations Women can bring huge value to the mining industry, including contributing important Indigenous perspectives on projects.
“[It means] informed decisions that we haven’t had in industry, people being in those decision-making roles sharing their cultural perspectives and their lived experience,” she says.
“Better decisions can be made much earlier.”
IMARC also continues to support students, graduates, and future leaders of the industry via its NextGen Program, which this year will not only see more students and graduates as speakers in the IMARC Conference Program but will also host more than 230 students from five Sydney schools for the IMARC NextGen Junior Program, in partnership with AREEA’s Bright Future STEM.
The global mining and resources industry has certainly come a long way in how it works with the communities in which it operates, recognising that its social license is hard-won, and must be constantly earned.
The entire global value chain has clearly taken great strides to enhance the well-being of indigenous populations and to listen to their voices. The benefits lie not only in the ability to access and develop the resources the world needs, but also in tapping into the skills, knowledge and human resources that the industry needs.
IMARC 2023 in Sydney will be a showcase of initiatives encompassing job opportunities, training schemes, social welfare programs, and bolstering local enterprises.
IMARC, Collaborating on trends in mining, investment and innovation towards a sustainable future. The International Mining and Resources Conference (IMARC) is where the most influential people in the mining industry come together, delivering ideas, inspiration and serving as a meeting ground for industry leaders. As Australia’s largest mining event, it brings together over 8,500 decision makers, mining leaders, policy makers, investors, commodity buyers, technical experts, innovators, and educators from more than 120 countries for three days of learning, deal-making and unparalleled networking. IMARC is developed in collaboration with its founding partners the Victorian State Government, Austmine, AusIMM and Mines and Money, and held with the support of its Host Partner, the NSW Government.
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