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More than half of Australia’s critical minerals mines lie on Indigenous land: Mongabay

Australia’s critical mineral policies must consider the rights and interests of First Nations peoples throughout a project’s life cycle.

  • The global energy transition has increased demand for the minerals needed in the production of batteries, solar panels and other renewable energy technology.
  • In a new study, researchers found that 57.8% of critical mineral projects in Australia lie within formally recognised Indigenous lands, or 79.2% if land subject to claims of native title that haven’t yet been determined are included.
  • Historically, Australia’s First Nations haven’t received fair compensation or benefit sharing when investors have found resources in their territories, sources told Mongabay.
  • The paper’s authors, Indigenous organisations and environmental campaigners say that critical mineral policies must consider the rights and interests of First Nations peoples throughout a project’s life cycle.

More than half of Australia’s mines producing the minerals needed for clean energy technology lie within formally recognised Indigenous lands, new research shows — with that figure rising to nearly four-fifths if land subject to claims of native title that haven’t yet been determined are included.

Many First Nations peoples say there hasn’t been fair compensation or benefit sharing from this bonanza so far, and that new projects, many incentivized by the government, must consider their rights and interests.

The study, published in Energy Research & Social Science, focused on 14 commodities, including 12 critical minerals such as cobalt and lithium.

To locate Australia’s mines, the authors analyzed data from S&P Global Market Intelligence and from Geoscience Australia, a government agency.

This yielded a total of 2,950 sites, of which 379 were in operation at the time of the analysis. Of these operational sites, 219, or 57.8%, were located on land where Indigenous Australians hold either exclusive or non-exclusive rights to negotiate, the study found. When considering land where native title claims have been applied for but not granted, this increases to 79.2%.

The study didn’t look at how many of the mining projects have already negotiated agreements with the Indigenous communities.

Given the rapid growth of investment in the critical mineral sector and Australia’s poor track record when it comes to recognising Indigenous peoples’ rights and interests, the paper’s authors say there need to be major policy changes.

Otherwise there’s a risk that existing social, economic and governance problems may endure or potentially worsen, they write.

“Australia has a relatively strong set of regulations for the environmental impacts, although enforcement is often weak and penalties low,” study co-author John Burton, a senior research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, told Mongabay.

“Regulations for social impact are not as strong as they are for the environment.”

Economic benefits for some

Australia has recently developed its Critical Minerals Strategy, which outlines the government’s vision to create mineral supply chains and grow the country’s critical minerals sector.

The vision is to help the country scale up its renewable energy, defense and energy sectors. It also includes plans to carry out effective engagement and consultation with First Nations communities.

“First Nations people in Australia are being largely ignored in the federal government’s accelerated push for critical minerals exploration and development,” said Chris Croker, co-chair of the First Nations Clean Energy Network.

“We look forward to significant First Nations partnerships, equity and ownership arrangements going forward in the critical minerals sector, coupled with early engagement, transparent information, ongoing free, prior and informed consent [FPIC], participation and inclusion, and a seat at the table.”

As part of the country’s 2024-2025 budget, the Australian government announced that it would provide Geoscience Australia with A$566.1 million ($377.7 million) over 10 years to map its natural resources and accelerate the discovery of critical minerals. This will generate new jobs and boost economic development, according to a government press release.

“This funding will ensure we can draw the map for our resources companies to find the minerals we need to drive our economy and build the technology we need to reduce emissions,” Geoscience Australia CEO James Johnson told state media.

According to research by Deloitte Access Economics, in 2021-2022 the work of Geoscience Australia added A$76 billion ($57 billion at the time) in value to the Australian economy, or the equivalent of 3.5% of the country’s GDP, and supported 80,000 full-time jobs. Other research by Accenture has shown that the critical minerals industry in Australia could provide an additional 110,000 direct and indirect jobs and generate A$38.4 billion ($25.6 billion) in profits.

“Alongside with a fossil fuel phaseout, the responsible mining of these minerals could form a big part of Australia’s contribution to the clean energy transition and the global effort to tackle climate change,” said Elizabeth Sullivan, a campaigner with the Australian Conservation Foundation, an environmental NGO.

Environmental and cultural damage, conflicts with communities

The expansion of the critical mining sector can create more jobs and opportunities, but it can also produce negative impacts, such as contamination and other environmental damage. As for the opportunities promised, many Indigenous peoples say they’ve seen little of them.

“Indigenous Australians have not generally done well from the mining of their country,” Sullivan said. “Land has been damaged, creeks and artesian water sources polluted, and communities left in poverty.”

One example is the Redbank copper mine, located in the Northern Territory near the border with Queensland state. It ceased operation in 1996 after three years because of a drop in copper prices and has been under “care and maintenance” ever since. Reports say acid generated by waste rock and tailings at the old mine has leached into the surface water around the mine and contaminated water sources important to the Garawa traditional landowners.

In another case, in 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto detonated explosives in an area of the Juukan Gorge in the western Pilbara region — the traditional lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama peoples — and destroyed two sacred rock shelters that dated back more than 46,000 years.

Croker told Mongabay that the absence of FPIC processes is why conflicts between First Nations and mining companies have occurred in the past. At present, Australian law doesn’t require companies to seek FPIC to the standard laid out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Instead, he said, there needs to be early engagement, transparent information, and FPIC across the project life cycle and in legislation.

“That means a seat at the decision-making table, a share in the benefits, minimum equity and co-ownership or ownership of projects,” Croker said.

“We want our people employed, our businesses preferred, and our families and communities to finally have a window of opportunity for economic development from projects built on our land.”


This article was first published in Mongabay.

Photo is of the open pit of the Greenbushes lithium mine, Western Australia, seen from the public mine lookout. Image by Calistemon via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).