By: Renee Hardy
What’s Going On?
Like most places today, Australia is trying to find ways to secure its position in the global economy. Ecotourism and export of minerals are two of the country’s most important economic activities that seem impossible to give up. Mining for minerals such as iron ore and gold has been a huge source of capital for Australia. In 2009-2010, mining represented the third largest sector-share of GDP at 8.4% (1). And while this looks good from a capitalist viewpoint, there are severe implications to mining practices. Well known tourist destinations including the Great Barrier Reef [see this related article for more info about why the GBR and tourism are in danger] and The Kimberly (known for cultural and biological diversity) could be at serious risk if mining practices continue as they are. Tourism of the Kimberly made up 35.8% of the region’s economy, and 88% of the Great Barrier Reef’s contribution to GDP in 2005 was from tourism as well (1). These are not the only important regions that are at risk either. Mines are popping up in many places, but most research leads to Western and Northern Australia where indigenous groups are also being affected. Places like Pilbara in Western Australian are as much a “92 per cent covered by live or pending mining tenements” (3). Australia is known for its natural beauty and vast biodiversity, but there is reason to believe that one of the continent’s most important features is at serious risk, along with its indigenous population, with little to no help from the government.
Effects on Indigenous Peoples:
Something that people might be unaware of is that the Australian government has a long history of mistreating the continent’s indigenous population. Mining has added to this significantly by forcing people from their homes and land, preventing them from accessing clean land and water, impacting their health and livelihoods, causing divisions in communities over who benefits from the mine, changing the social dynamics of a community, and exposing people to harassment by mine or government security (4). In Western Australia, the government has been closing down aboriginal communities, often times to clear land. And you might be thinking, “What does that even mean?” Good question, how can you just close down a community? The answer is, unfortunately, with guns and bulldozers. Aboriginal people are being forcibly removed from their homes which are then being destroyed, and many argue that one of the main reasons behind this is racism within the country. Recently, the number of Aboriginal people being hospitalized has been increasing and suicides by individuals as young as eleven years old have been recorded (6). Jails in Western Australia are overcrowded, and it has “one of the highest incarceration rates of juveniles in the world, almost all of them Indigenous” (6). Individuals face high poverty rates, disease, abuse, and alcoholism; all things to be expected when people are forcibly displaced with little assistance. But something much more frightening that families face is the removal of their children at gun point, with as many as 15,000 children removed from their homes and placed with white families (6). These aspects have severe psychological implications and the use of media propaganda has influenced the Australian public to marginalize indigenous groups further (6). Many people think that indigenous people should “assimilate” and chose to live a more “civilized” lifestyle. These are familiar colonial ways of thinking. In 2015, “the federal government cut $534m in Indigenous social programs, including $160m from the Indigenous health budget and $13.4m from Indigenous legal aid.” (6). The state government claimed that it could no longer afford the support, but mining companies in this region make “billion dollar profits exploiting Aboriginal land” (6). Until recently, indigenous people were hardly employed within the mining industry at all. In places like the Pilbara, “the emphasis on rapid resource development… resulted in less concern for the welfare of Indigenous people, including in their employment” (5). As a way to combat this scenario and get more indigenous people involved in the industry, ATAL was formed in 1992 by Hamersley Iron (5). Land Use Agreements with Pilbara Aboriginal groups have also increased and obliged the company to respect some local heritage (5). But development in this case is still one sided. The local economies and those most plagued by poverty are not benefiting from the mining industry’s success. And although many indigenous people now are employed– by mining companies that displaced them in the first place– are they better off? Is this not just a way to force them to adopt a new way of life that the majority has imposed on them? These circumstances are unfortunately nothing new. And while the exploitation of indigenous land is an effect of mining companies moving in, it is important to point out that all of these social aspects cannot be blamed on the emergence of the mining industry. The Aboriginal people have been discriminated against long before the mining boom. Unfortunately throughout history we have seen similar discrimination and exploitation take place; the Apartheid in South Africa and the Native American genocide in the United States are just two examples of comparable colonization situations.
Effects on the Environment:
If the consequences of displacement are not bad enough to make Australia reconsider its reliance on mining, the environmental impacts may force it to soon. Mining can disrupt local ecosystems and release harmful toxins into the environment. Every form of extraction is different, but generally, mining can lead to acid mine drainage, heavy metal contamination and leaching (especially of ground water), chemical pollution, and erosion (10). These effects last even after a mining project has ended, therefore once the damage has been done, little can be done to reverse these effects in a timely manner. Many people are worried that these practices will effect some of Australia’s most important tourist attractions, as stated above. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has even stepped in to ensure that some areas are conserved. In 2014, the EPA urged Australia to preserve more land in Pilbara and conduct more research on the impacts of pit mine lakes which can seriously effect wildlife and ecosystems (3). The environmental impacts of mining are worsened by climate change. Contamination of water that people rely on to survive would be extremely detrimental, especially due to the increasingly dry seasons the continent has been facing. Mining has also lead to excess surface water and depletion of ground water (2). This means there is less water to go around, and existing water sources are not being replenished. In an article published in 2016, it was stated that “the recent drying out of southern Australia was the strongest recorded large-scale change in rainfall since national records began in 1900” (5). Some water levels in the country have dropped by as much as 70 percent (5). Carbon dioxide emissions from mining also have a negative impact on the planet, but despite this, it appears that a new coal mine will be built soon, just inland from the Great Barrier Reef (5). If Australia does not start to address the impacts of climate change soon, the need for the mining industry will be nonexistent. If there is no water for the people and wildlife, then no one will be able to live in these areas. And if the Great Barrier Reef and other protected sites are destroyed by mining or climate change, ecotourism will be less profitable and Australia will find itself in serious economic distress. Sustainable practices are much more important than a big paycheck for large corporations.
A Positive Outlook for the Future?
Environmentally speaking, many people are optimistic about the future of the mining industry. One report claimed that while “mining can never be a truly sustainable enterprise, some companies are now starting to apply sustainability principles to their operations”, and companies recognize that “the wealth and expertise generated by a mine can be used to benefit the area in which the mine sits – thereby leaving a benefit in exchange for the extraction of mineral wealth and environmental damage” (9). And while opinions are subject to bias, some scientists actually claim that the environmental implications of mining can easily be avoided. As for the local communities, an article posted just yesterday on November 16th, 2016 seemed to hint at a possible silver lining in all of this negativity. There has been a proposal put before the Barnett government that could create more than 200 jobs. The goal is to expand the Indigenous ranger program throughout the Pilbara, Midwest, and Gascoyne regions. This would mean that “Five million hectares of unmanaged pastoral leases in outback Western Australia would become national park land…” (3). And indigenous people would be employed as indigenous rangers to “work in fire mitigation, weed control, and eradicating feral animals” (3). And while personally I believe that this is just an easy way to alleviate some of the tensions between the aboriginal peoples and the government, and not an actual way to solve the deep-rooted problems at hand, some are supporting the proposal because it provides employment, allows elders to share their knowledge, and allows younger people to connect with their culture (3). Not to mention, the proposal will continue to preserve some important environmental areas. So while some indigenous people are very much in favor of this idea, it is also not the best case scenario. It does not fix the displacement of people or address the pressures of assimilation and genocide. And aside from that, ecotourism faces many of its own problems. Who is really getting the most out of this system? Indigenous peoples who lived on these lands are certainly not profiting nearly as much as the government is, and they have strong ties to the land that the government does not understand. When the people look at the land they do not just see dollar signs, and I would imagine that many individuals are extremely unhappy with the way the lands are being utilized in Australia. It must be horrible to watch all of this happen to your home and the only thing the government will allow you to do is be a park ranger where you once lived, so that other people can enjoy its beauty.
It is crucial that Australia begins to claim responsibility for the negative environmental impacts of mining and the patterns of discrimination against indigenous peoples. The Aboriginal people of Australia have always felt very strong ties to the water, one person in Pilbara stated, “All our river systems should be looked after; our water should be respected and treated as the most sacred and precious resource. When all our rivers are dead, everything else will also be gone… it is our homes, our heritage, our spirit and our souls, it is our essence of being” (2).
See this video of some local people in favor of the proposal:
Related: Check out this series of photos of Indigenous Western Australian rock art!
(1) Adams, Vanessa. “Mining and the Environment: The Future of Australia’s Brand.” Prime Creative Media. N.p., 12 July 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <https://www.australianmining.com.au/news/mining-and-the-environment-the-future-of-australias-brand/>.
(2) Barber, Marcus, and Sue Jackson. “Aboriginal Water Values And Resource Development Pressures In The Pilbara Region Of North-West Australia.” Australian Aboriginal Studies 2 (2011): 32. General OneFile. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=658848fa-545d-46e8-8cf2-dfea8d15c8a3%40sessionmgr4010&vid=6&hid=4203
(3) “EPA Wants Pilbara Environment Protected from Mining.” ABC News. N.p., 15 Oct. Web. 16 Nov. 2016. <http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-10-15/epa-warns-pilbara-environment-needs-long-term-plan/5815724>.
(4) “Impacts of Mining.” Oxfam Australia. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <https://www.oxfam.org.au/what-we-do/mining/impacts-of-mining/>.
(5) Innis, Michelle. “Australia Climate Report Predicts More Hot Days and Harsher Fire Seasons.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Oct. 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/27/world/australia/extreme-weather-global-warming.html?_r=0>.
(6) Pilger, John. “Evicting Indigenous Australians from Their Homelands Is a Declaration of War.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 21 Apr. 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/22/by-evicting-the-homelands-australia-has-again-declared-war-on-indigenous-people>.
(7) Taylor, J., and B. Scambary. Indigenous People and the Pilbara Mining Boom. Canberra: ANU E, 2005. ANU E Press. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p123151/pdf/book.pdf?referer=255>.
(8) Wahlquist, Calla. “Western Australian Indigenous Ranger Program Proposed for 5m Hectares.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 16 Nov. 2016. Web. 16 Nov. 2016. <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/nov/16/western-australian-indigenous-ranger-program-proposed-for-5m-hectares>.
(9) “WA’s Mining Boom: Where Does It Leave the Environment?” ECOS, Oct.-Nov. Web. 15 Nov. 2016. <http://www.publish.csiro.au/ec/pdf/EC133p12>.
(10) “1301.0 – Year Book Australia, 2003.” 0 – Year Book Australia, 2003. ABS Publications, 4 July 2006. Web. 16 Nov. 2016. <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/46d1bc47ac9d0c7bca256c470025ff87/ce28d7fbe5faa308ca256cae0015da32!OpenDocument>.