MAC: Mines and Communities

Indigenous land-use money "wasted"

Published by MAC on 2007-01-30

Indigenous land-use money "wasted"

by ABC News Online

30th January 2007

A new study has found many of the land use agreements between Indigenous people, mining companies and governments are poorly constructed, and ride roughshod over the rights of Aborigines.

But federal Minister for Indigenous Affairs Mal Brough says while the finding that many land-use agreements fall short is a familiar story, he says his biggest concern is what happens after the money gets to Indigenous groups.

He says the study backs the Government's case for encouraging individual ownership of Indigenous land.

Professor Ciaran O'Faircheallaigh, from Queensland's Griffith University, says the deals were supposed to help fast-track mining operations and deliver financial windfalls for Aboriginal communities.

But he says some of the deals should never have been signed.

"We found enormous variation in our outcomes. We found that a small number of the agreements, about a quarter, are delivering very substantial outcomes to Aboriginal people," he said.

"However, at the other extreme we found that about half of the agreements have little by way of substantial benefits.

"They're either doing very well in a minority of cases, or in a majority of cases, there not getting substantial benefits.

"[So] perhaps a quarter should not have been signed. The reason we say they should not have been signed is that in the case of one agreement, for example, the financial benefits are less than $100,000 over the life of a substantial project."

But Mr Brough says the study reinforces what he has seen first-hand in Indigenous communities over the past 12 months.

"That is, while land use was hailed as being the saviour for Australia's Aboriginal people, the reality is that it won't deliver while the land is owned collectively that they live on," he said.

"The money in most cases paid in the form of royalties, via mining companies principally, is going to a collective body.

"In too many cases the money has been wasted - the money has been not well-invested.

"The benefits have not flown back to the people who are the family members the traditional owners, the people who should be benefiting, whose lives should be changed extraordinarily and who should not be living in poverty as a result of the finances that have coming in."

Negotiating power

But Professor O'Faircheallaigh says the reason many of the land-use agreements do not work, is the lack of negotiating power Aboriginal people have.

"A lot of the weakest agreements are negotiated under the Native Title Act. The Native Title Act puts Aboriginal people in a weak negotiated position, because at the end of the six-month negotiating period, if they haven't reached an agreement with the mining company, the company can go the National Native Title Tribunal and request that the mining lease be issued- and the project go ahead," he said.

"And in every single case where this has happened to date, in 16 cases in the last 10 years, the National Native Title Tribunal has allowed the mining lease to be issued.

"So Aboriginal people know [that] the companies know, that if they go to the tribunal, they'll get an outcome that is good for the companies."

But Mr Brough says the issue is how the money from the agreements is being used.

"No doubt there will be some very good examples and some poor examples. Let me give you an example that was reported to me in the last fortnight," he said.

"There was one particular gentleman being paid $250,000 in royalties [and] the whole lot was gone within a week, with a number of vehicles bought and the rest spent on gambling and other activities.

"Because the alternative of perhaps buying a home for your family - where there is a housing shortage in this particular locality - isn't an option because no one owns the land individually.

"So I think that the choices that you and I would have, or anyone else would have, to invest and make that money work for you is seen as less an opportunity in many Indigenous communities.

"There's more that could be done, there's no doubt about that in regard to agreement making. I am having discussions with the Mineral Council in regard to those issues, but of course, but course it's not just the Mineral Council, it's the other side of the equation which worries me the most - which is where the money's going to? Who is benefiting from it, and why isn't it being put to better use and improving the lives of Aboriginal Australians?"


Professor O'Faircheallaigh says the key for Aboriginal people is being better organised.

"Work out exactly what it is you want to get out of an agreement," he said.

"Get organised on the local level, in terms of having a strong united community when you deal with governments, and when you deal with mining companies.

"But also get organised in terms of working with the regional land organisations that have the expertise, that have the experience that can provide the backing that you need with dealing with big companies and with government."

Mr Brough says the money needs to be managed better.

"[We need to] ensure that the best deals are done, that real benefits can flow to Aboriginal people that have long-term benefits - not a four-wheel drive that lasts for a few months and then we're back to poverty and on unemployment benefits," he said.

"[There needs to be] investing in individual's futures, individual education, the capacity to buy homes, the capacity to have joint ventures and be part of businesses and being able to improve the quality of life of the people who aren't benefiting.

"We are talking here in terms of millions of dollars in specific communities, coming in on a regular basis. You would not think under those circumstances people would still be in overcrowded housing, having poor health outcomes etcetera. That's not a finance issues, that is how that money is being utilised."


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