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Professor Marcia Langton used to support Aboriginal empowerment, not the power of mining companies

In regards to mining on Aboriginal land, there are two primary concerns. Firstly, are the economic benefits as good as they sound? And secondly, what power do Aboriginal communities have in the agreement-making process?

While Prof. Langton has convincingly argued for many years that Aboriginal communities are not receiving their fair share of mining revenues, in the Boyer Lectures her proposed solutions to this economic vulnerability are largely to maintain the power of the mining industry

Responses to Marcia Langton’s Boyer Lectures

Prof. Langton used to sit on the Australian Uranium Association’s so-called ‘Indigenous Dialogue Group’. Other mining companies support her work as discussed below.

[ I’m thinking that Marcia Langton might now have to be  be included in the hierarchy of Australia’s nuclear spinners? – C.M. ]


Indigenous communities, conservation and the resource boom Friends of the Earth Australia, Nick McClean and Dawn Wells Chain Reaction #117, April 2013 In the recent Boyer Lectures, Prof. Marcia Langton argued that mining is providing Indigenous communities with an opportunity to move out of the economic margins and grow into a new middle class of wealth and opportunity.

But is mining the only way forward for Indigenous communities seeking to develop economically sustainable futures? And are supporters of conservation committing an act of racism, as she suggests?

We can begin by looking to Prof. Langton’s own publications. In an article published in the Journal of Political Ecology in 2005, Prof. Langton and her colleagues brought together research from across Australia, the Middle-East, Indonesia and the United Nation’s chief conservation agency, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Assessing the benefits and pitfalls of developing community-based conservation programs in partnership with Indigenous peoples, the conclusions were clear − Australia is currently one of the few countries where Indigenous led conservation programs are proving successful.

To quote: “Australia has in relation to certain key national parks, taken a lead role in the development of joint management agreements with Indigenous groups” (p.35) and “we also argue, in contrast to many critiques of community-based conservation elsewhere, that community-oriented protected areas are delivering significant benefits to Indigenous peoples in Australia” (p.24).

Based on a number of detailed examples, Prof. Langton and her colleagues argued that Australia’s Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) program in particular provides significant potential for Indigenous communities to develop livelihoods that are economically sustainable and culturally relevant. It’s hard to argue with her either, when we consider that IPAs now make up 25% of the National Reserve System, and include the country’s largest single conservation reserve, the massive Southern Tanami Indigenous Protected Area. This alone indicates that conservation is no longer solely the domain of city-based environmentalists, but is an increasingly important component of the Indigenous estate, and of Indigenous economic life.

Moreover, the IPA program is only one example of conservation done in partnership with Indigenous communities, with all states and territories except Tasmania and the ACT instituting legislation for the joint management of national parks. It is through these arrangements that Aboriginal ranger groups are being set up across the country, providing meaningful, ongoing employment for young Aboriginal men and women, and a forum within which elders can guide the management of their country according to cultural knowledge and community priorities.

While these schemes are in many cases still developing, Prof. Langton’s argument in favour of IPAs revolves around the fact that Indigenous land owners can maintain ownership and full control over their country and the programs developed to manage it. The secure tenure that underpins the IPA program is one of its biggest strengths, with communities nominating land they own outright as conservation reserves. Her point about the environment movement historically disregarding Indigenous interests is undeniable, but according to Prof. Langton’s research, emerging forms of conservation are neither racist nor economically useless.

It can be argued that these programs exist in no small part due Indigenous advocates such as Prof. Langton and Noel Pearson mounting a public critique of the wilderness concept and mainstream environmentalism almost 20 years ago, a critique she foregrounds in the Boyer Lectures. Joint management schemes and the IPA program, as well as the many Indigenous engagement programs run by influential environmental NGOs today, exist not because of epiphanies among politicians and activists, but because of the well made arguments of Aboriginal people, acting as major rural landholders who in many cases seek out conservation as a viable option for managing their futures.

What is surprising about the Boyer Lectures is the lack of acknowledgement that these developments also represent a significant, if incomplete, process of cultural change among Australian conservationists, in direct response to Indigenous criticism and innovation. After all these programs, like Indigenous mining ventures, require collaboration and mutual endeavor to succeed.

What about mining itself? Is it the golden egg Prof. Langton would have us believe? A 2011 survey by the Australia Institute suggests a wide divergence between the mining industry’s perceived and real economic benefits. Those surveyed thought the mining industry employed nine times more workers than it does; accounted for three times as much economic activity than it does; and was 30% more Australian-owned than it is. These findings represent an emerging field of research which is bringing the mining industry’s self-styled image as the backbone of the Australian economy and sole provider of Aboriginal economic development under increasing scrutiny.

In regards to mining on Aboriginal land, there are two primary concerns. Firstly, are the economic benefits as good as they sound? And secondly, what power do Aboriginal communities have in the agreement-making process?

Prof. Langton’s 2010 Griffith Review article ‘The Resource Curse’ raises many of these issues. She asks, “are there any policies to counter the growing disparities in income and living conditions and opportunities in the mining provinces?”. She goes on to argue, “until this is resolved and other inequities addressed, there is a ticking time bomb in the remote economic heart of the nation”

Referring to the localised inflation which occurs in mining towns, Prof. Langton highlights where it hits remote Aboriginal communities hard – housing, goods and services. She refers to rental increases in which caravan parking births cost up to $1000 per week. This high inflation has a flow-on effect on the services sector, as businesses are not able to provide housing for staff, and the community is deprived of basic services. Meanwhile, state and federal governments pull back on spending in these communities, and have a bad track record of providing sufficient public housing. The hardest hit are the people who are not directly employed by the mining industry. Not earning the higher wages provided by this industry, they are paying the same inflated rents, food and services costs. This is especially significant when we consider that the mining industry is one of the least labour intensive industries in the country. Finally, Prof. Langton draws attention to the fact that these towns become wholly reliant upon foreign-owned multinational corporations, which can decide at any moment to close mining operations if they are not profitable.

While Prof. Langton has convincingly argued for many years that Aboriginal communities are not receiving their fair share of mining revenues, in the Boyer Lectures her proposed solutions to this economic vulnerability are largely to maintain the power of the mining industry. While she discusses Indigenous disadvantage across the lectures, she doesn’t discuss in detail the limited power Aboriginal communities frequently have in forming agreements with mining companies. It is common knowledge that Native Title, for example, provides for an uneven negotiating ground between resource companies and traditional owners, as it does not confer outright land ownership to traditional owners. Moreover many Aboriginal communities simply do not have any rights to land at all. This situation is the same as Prof. Langton herself found when looking at Aboriginal involvement in conservation. Those communities with more secure forms of tenure are able to negotiate good economic outcomes more often, while those without it are dependent on the ethics of those they do business with in order to safeguard their economic security.

Prof. Langton argues for Aboriginal communities’ right to pursue mining projects, yet questions remain regarding their economic, social and environmental sustainability. In many cases mining companies remain as capable of disregarding Indigenous interests as conservationists, yet communities will no doubt continue to choose mining as a basis for their economic future. Nevertheless in many cases there appears to be no guarantee that it will provide an even or fair distribution of wealth, and in choosing mining many communities may well choose against conservation options with the potential to provide economic security over the long term. This is some of what we can glean from Marcia Langton’s research.

Nick McClean works as a heritage consultant with Aboriginal ranger groups in NSW and is completing a PhD at the Australian National University. Dawn Wells is commencing a PhD at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

June 11, 2017 - Posted by | aboriginal issues, AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL

1 Comment »

  1. HOT WATER: ‘Erin Brockovich of Uranium’ Exposes the Toxic Legacy of Nuclear Power


    Comment by Rob | March 13, 2013 | Reply

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