Skip navigation

We're here, we've been caring for these lands forever, and we're willing partners: ecogeneration

The economic shift brought about by the Australian Government's Future Made in Australia Act cannot come at the expense of First Nations peoples. We want to see economic and policy systems that include and embed First Nations culture, rights and interests, and priorities. We don't want to see a repeat of the mistakes of the past.

This is an excerpt from an ecogeneration interview with Chris Croker, co-chair of the First Nations Clean Energy Network.

A fairer share

Around half of the new renewable energy assets Australia needs to meet 2030 emissions targets will be built on lands where First Nations people hold legal interests and rights.

Chris, whose organisation is an advocate for First Nations access to renewable energy, fostering economic empowerment, and environmental stewardship, stressed the urgent need for policies ensuring fair economic opportunities and revenue sharing.

"When there's land access agreements or compensation, governments acquire land interest from farmers, but our First Nations groups don't have the legal Western legal title," Chris said. "I always ask project developers and government to recognise that there's actually two types of legal title."

Chris believes First Nations peoples' cultural connections to their ancestral estates must be validated through compensation and benefit-sharing mechanisms on par with other title holders.

"Our cultural connections are still valid and as strong today as they have ever been," he said. "We should equally compensate our First Nations parties that have the same interest in that particular piece of land."

Chris raised concerns about the disconnect between billion-dollar renewable projects and disadvantaged First Nations communities, where jobs and wealth are created but benefits can flow past local communities.

"It makes no sense to have a massive wealth generation and employment ... but actually the benefits, the jobs, that money is flowing straight past our disadvantaged communities," he said.

The First Nations Clean Energy Network proposed policy options to close this equity gap, including fiscal incentives, ownership requirements, job-creation targets, and prioritising First Nations procurement.

"We need both carrots and sticks - incentives to drive better First Nations outcomes... and penalties if the benefits don't flow through and our cultural heritage is impacted," Chris said.

Principles of consent critical

Chris believes incorporating free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) into the Future Made in Australia Act is crucial for meaningful First Nations participation in the future of Australian renewable energy.

"Where Traditional Owners and First Nations communities are engaged as genuine partners from the start, projects develop faster, creating better value for investors and decreasing risk," he said.

Chris suggested the Future Made in Australia Act should include dedicated financial commitments to build First Nations groups' capacity to assess development opportunities and impacts.

"Any future plans must include a strong consultation and capacity-building element for our First Nations groups," he said.

He stressed that FPIC needs to be part of the legislation to help ensure the right capacity and information is supplied to First Nations groups.

"At a practical level, FPIC needs to be embedded ... so that they're better able to understand the opportunities, the impacts to country, the impacts on our cultural and environmental obligations," he said.

Chris emphasised the need for workforce-training and capacity-building initiatives to enable full First Nations participation in the renewable energy transition. He would like to see greater investment in upskilling programs to equip First Nations people with the abilities to capitalise on emerging job opportunities.

"We need our TAFE system, our tertiary systems, our universities to actually start offering more focused opportunity to learn," Chris said. "We need it now. With only five years until the 2030 targets, and university degrees alone taking three years, we're burning a huge chunk of that timeframe already. Partnerships between education providers, employers, and First Nations communities will be critical to developing and delivering localised training pathways."

According to Chris, dedicated funding mechanisms to support capacity-building among First Nations groups should be part of the Future Made in Australia Act.

"First Nations people have the skills, the desire and the solutions to contribute meaningfully to this transition," he said. "But we can't make it happen if we aren't included as true partners from the outset. We're here, we've been caring for these lands forever and we're willing partners. But you need to engage with us early, respect and honour our unique rights and deep connection to Country, and give us real pathways to lead renewable projects impacting our traditional estates and communities.

"Our ability to share in the job-creation, economic prosperity and modern services flowing from this transition shouldn't be a politicised debate, but a concerted national commitment to finally getting this right."


This article was first published in ecogeneration