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SMH/The Age Opinion: Power must come to First Nations people

Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge sent shock waves around the world. In the rush to develop clean energy projects we must not repeat similar mistakes, where the expansion of renewables becomes another action done “to” First Nations people rather than “with” them.

The clean energy boom, while necessary, is not cost free. It would be a terrible irony if the renewables industry was granted the same licence to wreck our land and culture as mining.

It is our lands and waters that offer rich, renewable resources, especially for solar and wind power. As renewable energy zones expand, First Nations people’s consent to projects on our lands will be critical.

First Nations communities must sit at the table as owners, experts and the spiritual custodians of the landscape.

We currently negotiate under a native title legal system, which provides no right of veto to destructive development and this needs urgent reform.

Traditional owners very often have no real choice but to allow development, or risk losing country and culture without any compensation. Promised jobs and economic benefits are rarely delivered to a scale that compensates for this loss.

In stark contrast, large subsidies have flowed to the resources industry, which enjoys easy access to government and favourable regulatory regimes.

While pandering to the extractive industry, governments have ignored the problems that First Nations people living in remote communities face in accessing reliable, affordable power.

Families struggle to pay extraordinary power bills from diesel or gas-fired generation. Electricity disconnections are frequent and cause significant social and economic disruption.

With climate change, extreme temperatures are on the rise. Food is spoiled without power. Children have schooling disrupted. People cannot store medicines safely, and those with complex health needs suffer.

These are some of the drivers behind the new First Nations Clean Energy Network. We will partner with industry, investors, unions, academics and legal and technical experts to boost the capacity of our people to engage with governments and the renewables industry at a structural level.

In Canada, a similar network has joined with government and industry to support nearly 200 medium-to-large renewable energy projects, offering jobs, training and new revenue streams.

Within Indigenous Canadian communities, smaller clean energy projects are flourishing.

We will do the same, ensuring that clean energy developments and the ongoing management, decommissioning and rehabilitation of lands, are respectful of our place on this continent.

The network has the platform, expertise and experience to form strong and equitable working relationships with the renewables industry.

At a bare minimum we expect that governments, developers and financiers, when engaging and negotiating with First Nations communities, will act consistently with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and Equator Principles.

Our sacred sites should be respected and protected, and we reserve the right to say ‘no’ to destruction.

It’s clear the energy transformation is here and First Nations people are critical to this revolution.

While we are optimistic about the gains to be made by the transformation, this time the benefits must be there for all.

Tony McAvoy, SC, is a Wangan and Jagalingou Traditional Owner, Australia’s first Indigenous silk and First Nations Clean Energy Network steering group member. Opinion piece published on The Age and Sydney Morning Herald sites