Less than 10 per cent of companies mining in Australia have publicly stated their positions regarding engagement with Aboriginal communities, land rights, and the preservation of culturally significant sites, research shows.
- Uni SA research found just 36 of 448 mining companies’ 2017 public reports mentioned Aboriginal community policies
- Researchers found larger mining companies did better disclosing policies relating to Indigenous Australians
- However, it said there was little evidence of Aboriginal people being included in corporate leadership
A Uni SA study assessed the 2017 annual and sustainability reports of 448 companies against a range of outcomes developed by Reconciliation Australia.
It found just 36 companies, or eight per cent, mentioned any ideology, policy, or initiatives related to Aboriginal people.
Mining companies’ interactions with Australia’s Indigenous community have been in the spotlight since Rio Tinto’s destruction of sacred rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in northern Western Australia earlier this year.
The report quoted Minerals Australia research that found more than 60 per cent of the country’s mines neighbour Aboriginal communities.
Larger companies better at disclosure
The research further analysed the 36 companies that did publicly disclose their policies and found that “large mining companies provided detailed disclosure on their Aboriginal engagement initiatives”.
It found “land use and native title agreements were the highest disclosed Aboriginal engagement issue”, which the research said was unsurprising given it was the only area governed by strict regulation.
Given broader reporting was voluntary, the report said a “low level of disclosure on Aboriginal engagement issues does not necessarily indicate a lack of effective engagement practices”.
Instead, it said there was a “need to develop an accounting and reporting framework at the organisational level to capture these social disclosures”.
‘Power imbalance’ still exists
Uni SA researcher Amanpreet Kaur said disclosures were important not only for the public, but for the “insight gained by the company itself, as [it] requires directors to carefully assess and plan their own course of action”.
Dr Kaur said the analysis also highlighted a lack of Indigenous people in senior leadership positions.
“We found there was a power imbalance,” she said.
The report said Aboriginal people were mostly employed in “supervisory roles or as individual contributors” with “little evidence … regarding their involvement in specialised and leadership roles”.
Rio Tinto was quoted as saying it was “proud to be one of the largest private sector employers of Indigenous Australians”.
It said it employed “1,431 full-time Indigenous employees … [which] represented approximately eight per cent of our Australian employees in 2017”.
But the research found those statistics did not translate into executive and leadership positions across the industry.
“Although the Aboriginal communities are regarded as traditional custodians and owners of mining lands, they are largely perceived as receivers of the benefits, not providers of resources that are crucial for mining companies and their businesses,” Dr Kaur said.
She said “Aboriginal communities were largely treated as a marginalised stakeholder group, similar to women”.
Indigenous leadership could help avoid mistakes
Dr Kaur said a greater concentration of Indigenous people in leadership positions could help to prevent incidents like the destruction at Juukan Gorge.
“That will give Aboriginal communities power to control what happens and is something that is really needed to minimise or reduce – or even possibly eliminate, if that’s possible – such incidents,” she said.
Dr Kaur also said companies would likely benefit from Aboriginal employees’ executive input.
“They have thousands of years of knowledge and expertise of land management and the local environment,” she said.
Dr Kaur said progress was being made, with some companies in particular “fostering meaningful engagement with marginalised stakeholders by acknowledging the expertise of the Aboriginal community in local environmental and cultural sustainability”.
“The next phase of our research will construct a framework for companies to develop these kinds of disclosure statements to help them learn from each other and ensure there are techniques for evaluating their effectiveness.”