“Approximately 70% of the Australian continent’s land mass is in some way, shape or form linked by policy, deed or title to an Indigenous estate,” says Vanessa Elliott, a director on the board of the CRC for Transformations in Mining Economies (CRC TiME) and a Jaru woman from Western Australia’s Kimberley region.
“Mining takes up significant land and the rights of First Nations people intersect with it.”
Ms Elliott has worked in land-use planning and the resources sector for more than 20 years and has expertise in sustainable development, stakeholder management and life-cycle planning for major projects.
“Now, for me to want to continue to progress an industry and not acknowledge the historical disadvantage that same industry has had on First Nations is simply asking us to put our head in the sand,” she says.
“We cannot as a nation continue to pretend we can’t see this.”
She is in the right place to help drive change.
“CRC TiME is a planning organisation, an innovation organisation and a change-management organisation, reengineering the way we work together to improve the ecological and social outcomes post mining,” she says.
“We need to put First Nations front and centre – there are legal and political reasons to do that, but above all else, it’s the right thing to do. There is no one greater impacted by mining activities than First Nations people.”
Elevating the voice of First Nations
The impact on Country of mining goes beyond what’s visible.
"There are simple things, such as it takes three times as long to hunt for a kangaroo because of the change of the landscape, so there’s a cultural and food-security impact,” she says.
“In the Pilbara, mining towns are effectively private estates, so the affordability to live there is an issue – the capacity to move into home ownership in the Pilbara will never be realised for many people.”
It’s obvious that elevating the voice of First Nations people must be woven into the fabric of mine-closure discussion – and the resources sector more broadly.
While this recognition is overdue, getting it right will take time.
For that reason, Ms Elliott is in no hurry to speed up the process in order to ensure that all aspects – including inclusion, education, and talent pipelines that convert the vocational experience of First Nations people into research – are considered and addressed.
“The CRC TiME is best placed to lead this conversation, but it’s going to take two to three years,” she says.
“This is a reset around how we do business and that’s why I chose to be on CRC TiME’s board, but I refuse to operate like a bull out of the gate. I’m interested in a nation- building conversation around why First Nations people have been continually missed from the architectural aspects of this industry, and as this industry explores and receives the liabilities of closure, how can we flip that script and ensure that First Nations voices are front and centre.”
It’s an enormous undertaking.
Ms Elliott feels “very much supported by my board,” she says.
“We are all reflecting on our own experiences and why, at a peer level, we have not had the benefit of having a First Nations colleague by our side. This must be a for-purpose journey. This stuff isn’t easy, and there’s no blueprint as no one’s done it yet.”
"As the CRC TiME undertakes multiple research programs, I’m very cognisant of pace, and understanding that the research into this won’t be in the same spectrum of tangibility of some projects,” says Ms Elliott.
“But if we can shift the dial on what constitutes a normative working relationship where First Nations actually feel included, we would do something that no one’s ever done within this sector.”
CRC TiME First Nations Advisory Committee
Jim Walker is acting chair of the CRC TiME First Nations Advisory Committee and echoes Ms Elliott’s points.
“Indigenous knowledge of Country has so much to contribute,” says Mr Walker, who is also a lecturer at the University of Queensland in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and a man of the Yiman and Goreng Goreng First Nations peoples.
“With mine closures and the rehabilitation of sites, I’ve seen an instance where a Cape York site was being replanted, and they brought up seeds from Victoria to do it.”
The lost opportunity was for local communities and the operator, too – needless to say native Victorian flora were not going to grow happily on Cape York.
“The First Nations communities in that area were already out there collecting seeds from provenance plants,” he says.
“If they’d engaged with them from the start, they could have had nurseries going, ready to rehabilitate the site in its natural form when the mine closed.”
Mr Walker says it’s equally important to hear from local Indigenous peoples at the beginning of a mine’s operation.
“Those same communities pointed out that when the site was being cleared for mining, the operators didn't allow them to take the hard timber, which they could have used for jetties and housing,” he says.
“If you prepare at the beginning to engage communities you can come up with a whole lot of solutions to prepare for mine closures down the track.”
Servicing cultural, social, environment, and economic values
He says he wants to direct the conversation to the quadruple bottom line, “cultural, social, environment, and economic … the industries that we are involved with often highlight our culture – land and water environmental management services, bush foods and bio-medicine production, management of pest species, biodiversity management and monitoring, forestry, aquaculture, and ecotourism,” says Mr Walker.
“We rely on our culture to be preserved, it’s the drawcard to the mitigation of detrimental impacts to land and waters both regionally and nationally, so it’s equally important to hear from First Nations peoples at the beginning of a mine’s operation.”
Involving First Nations people from day one of mine planning will bring broad benefits.
“We’re open for business, but include us in the decision making,” he says. “We want to be part of the solution.”
Ms Elliott says a laser focus is needed.
Time for First Nation inclusion
“Everyone wants this, but it’s not easy when you’re changing things and keeping the business of mining going,” Ms Elliott says.
“We need to make space for this, and as part of the wellbeing indicators of mine closure, participation cannot just be a principle, it must be an investment item.”
She says inclusion of First Nations will bring the industry to a sweet spot and a unique value proposition.
“I’m looking at every project within the CRC and asking, ‘What is your First Nations inclusion measure?’,” says Ms Elliott.
“I’m working with the CRC leadership to make sure our system’s orientation asks the right questions, to get people thinking about why there have not been provisions for First Nations inclusion.
"We need to develop a framework that builds in First Nations inclusion to project design, modelling, execution and research.
"First Nations have a philosophical understanding that when you care for Country, Country cares for you,” she says