Making agreements on Aboriginal land:  Mining and development

Mining on Aboriginal land contributes more than a billion dollars a year to the Northern Territory economy and accounts for 80 percent of the Territory’s income derived from mining.

In the CLC region much of the mining activity occurs west of Alice Springs in the Tanami Desert where Newmont operates the Granites gold mine and thousands of square kilometres of land are under exploration.

Traditional owners have extended leases to the Mereenie Oil and Gas field and the Palm Valley gas field for another 21 years following the signing of agreements several years ago.

Fortunately, the Aboriginal Land Rights Act gives protection to the traditional owners of Aboriginal land and enables the Land Council to make agreements with mining companies which satisfy all the interested parties.

The CLC has a statutory responsibility to carry out this function. The Aboriginal landowners get sacred site protection, environmental protection, some compensation and sometimes employment and training. The mining companies achieve clear, reliable and enduring agreements without the confusion and uncertainty that may characterise mining exploration elsewhere.

Once consent is given by traditional owners to exploration, they cannot refuse any subsequent mining.

An agreement for mining must be made to allow mining to proceed. Mining generally involves substantial impacts to the environment and can affect neighbouring communities. The decision, therefore, that traditional owners are required to make at the exploration licence application is quite onerous.

This is the earliest point in the development process when the least information is available on the nature of any possible development. In this context the CLC is required under the Land Rights Act to ensure traditional landowners are informed as far as practicable when making decisions.

Considerable effort and resources are directed at ensuring the relevant traditional owners of land affected by exploration licences are identified and that they participate in the relevant meetings.

The CLC has made agreements on behalf of traditional Aboriginal landowners with mining companies for more than 20 years. Under both the Land Rights Act and the Native Title Act, the CLC has forged agreements which offer security to mining companies and jobs, training, sacred site protection, environmental protection and opportunities for Aboriginal people.

What the Central Land Council must do:

  • Ensure that the right of traditional owners to control access to Aboriginal land is maintained and that native title rights and interests are enhanced and protected;
  • Ensure that Aboriginal people are fully informed and empowered to take control of decisions regarding exploration and mining on their land or where they hold native title;
  • Ensure that the wishes and opinions of traditional owners and native title holders over exploration and mining proposals are properly ascertained and instructions pursued faithfully;
  • Ensure that opportunities for participation and involvement by traditional owners and native title holders in exploration, mining and related activities are pursued and promoted;
  • Ensure that the Central Land Council’s statutory responsibilities and functions under the mining provisions (Part IV) of the Land Rights Act and Native Title Act (mining future acts) are carried out efficiently and effectively and in accordance with the respective legislation; and
  • Ensure that contractual obligations arising from agreements for exploration and mining are undertaken diligently.

The Land Rights Act and mining

The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 remains the most effective and workable legislation concerning Aboriginal rights to land in Australia.

Its mining provisions give Aboriginal landowners meaningful control over their land as well as providing exploration and mining interests with an ordered, transparent and equitable procedure for access.

The process is clearly set out in Part IV of the Act.