First Nations communities are losing out in the development of northern Australia

Redbank Mine
Copper sulphide from Redbank mine in diversion channel which flows directly into Hanrahan’s Creek.
New Matilda

Seán Kerins
Research Fellow in Anthropology at Australian National University
2 October 2015

As the Australian Government pushes ahead with its Northern Development agenda "making it easier to use natural assets", it's important to ask how this may affect the First Nations peoples in whose territories development will occur.

One way to see how this might play out in the future is to consider how northern development is already unfolding in the present. And one place to look is the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria region of the Northern Territory, around the township of Borroloola, where development is in full swing.

Here, over the past few years, mining effort has increased, with the expansion of existing mines and the development of new ones. Added to this, vast areas throughout the region have been identified for shale gas extraction.

Unlocking the potential of the north is sold as good news to Australians living far away in the south, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott telling us that northern development "will benefit every single Australian".

To speed up development, Australian governments have made red-tape reduction a priority.

While this may be good news to developers, it makes many First Nations people in the region anxious.

For the past 30 years Garawa, Gudanji, Mara and Yanyuwa people have sought to both resist and accommodate development.

Many have fought to protect their sacred sites and food resources, while others have championed development in the hope that it would bring much needed employment to a place with few mainstream opportunities.

Aboriginal leaders travel to Darwin to protest the McArthur zinc mine

Balancing competing interests hasn't always been easy, with tensions arising from time to time within families and across clan groups.

Today it's much harder for First Nations people to support development, as many are now able to see clearly how the costs and benefits associated with large-scale development in the region are distributed unequally.

While substantial benefits flow outside the region, it is the First Nations people who bear the cost of development as they experience the contamination of their territories and food resources from mining activity.

Mishandled mines

In the southwest Gulf there are three mines and a large loading facility at Bing Bong from where the region's minerals are exported.

Each of these developments has negative impacts on First Nations peoples livelihoods and wellbeing.

Western Desert Resources, an iron ore mine that opened in 2013 on the promise of jobs for local First Nations people, went into administration less than a year after beginning mining.

This mine left a significant food-gathering and hunting area choked in red iron ore dust, while a 165 km long-haul road cut through the Limmen National Park to the port at Bing Bong is already eroding in places.

Redbank copper mine, which closed in the mid-1990s, left exposed to monsoon rains an estimated 54,000 tonnes of partially treated and acid-forming material and poorly sealed tailing facilities allowing poisoned waters to bleed into the region's creeks and waterways to this day.

With water at the mine's leaking pit having a pH level of 2-3, close to the level of battery acid, it's little wonder that extending up to 7 km from the mine, copper sulphide leaching forms concentrations so high that there is no longer any aquatic life in the water.

Donald Shadforth a traditional owner at the dilapidated Redbank mine tailings storage
P. Taplin

Toxic water from Redbank mine in Hanrahan's Creek
P. Taplin

There have also been concerns over Glencore Xstrata's McArthur River Mine, one of the world's largest lead, zinc and silver mines.

Late last year, the mine's Independent Monitor, ERIAS Group, released a report detailing ongoing problems including emissions from combustion of rock in the waste pile, poorly managed tailing facilities, and a high risk of acid, saline and metalliferous drainage leaking into the region's groundwater.

Fish in one creek on the mine site had also tested positive for lead, although the monitor could not resolve that this was definitely as a result of the mine's activities.

Glencore responded to the report, stating that emissions from the waste pile had been controlled and that environmental impacts had been limited to the mine site.

Last week, more allegations emerged.

The Environmental Defenders Office NT alleged that hundreds of cattle on the station surrounding the mine (and owned by Glencore) had been slaughtered or quarantined after some tested positive for lead resulting from the McArthur River Mine.

Mine owner Glencore responded that it was continuing to work on its cattle management plan, which includes fencing and moving cattle from the site. But this claim was refuted by the Independent Monitor who reported seeing cattle grazing near the tailings facility at the mine only last month.

Other documents obtained by the Environmental Defenders Office in the same freedom of information release reveal that both Glencore and the NT Health Department had failed to warn locals of the danger of eating fish, mussels and oysters in several locations because of potential heavy metal contamination. Glencore has responded that the levels of contamination have improved since the data in the documents were collected.

Put First Nations peoples interests front and centre

The cost of development in the southwest Gulf region will be borne by First Nations people for years to come as they lose access to vital food resources through contamination from poorly regulated mining.

If northern development is to succeed in a sustainable fashion then two things are urgently needed.

The first is more open government. The second is that First Nations people need to be at the centre of development planning.

In doing this past mistakes are less likely to be repeated. And importantly, this will enable First Nations peoples to set their own development agenda for their territories and peoples.

Previously published in The Conversation