Notwithstanding the enormous global controversy generated by the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cave dwellings by the Rio Tinto mining company recently, over 90% of Australia’s mining houses still have no policy on Aboriginal engagement, a new study has found.
Research by the University of South Australia indicates that less than 10% of mining companies have publicly stated their position on engagement with Aboriginal communities, including in relation to key issues such as land rights and preservation of culturally significant sites.
“We found only 36 out of the 448 companies – 8% – provided disclosures on their Aboriginal engagement ideology, policy, and initiatives in their annual or sustainability reports,” Dr Amanpreet Kaur from UniSA Business said.
‘Significant potential for improvement’
“Given the high level of interaction the mining industry has with traditional landowners, that result indicates there is significant potential for improvement in this area.”
Dr Kaur and Dr Wei Qian, both of whom are with the university, examined annual and sustainability reports for the 448 publicly listed companies with mining operations in Australia, identifying company policies relating to Aboriginal people and community based on five dimensions suggested by Reconciliation Australia.
In light of recent high-profile events such as Rio Tinto’s destruction of the cave dwellings at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia in May – which has led to a government inquiry and the departure of several top company executives – the researchers believe improved public disclosure statements offer a clear, simple path to better management of Aboriginal relationships with the mining industry.
“Public disclosure statements are important for a number of reasons,” Dr Qian said. “Chiefly, they provide a clear outline of how a company will act, so that stakeholders – be that investors or people impacted by company activities – can respond accordingly.
Directors must have an action plan
“A key benefit of that outline process is not just the information it provides to the stakeholders, but the insight gained by the company itself, as that process requires directors to carefully assess and plan their own course of action.”
While the study suggests there is much improvement to be made in mining industry policy around Aboriginal relationships, Dr Kaur and Dr Qian stress its conclusions were not entirely negative, pointing to some good examples in their research, and suggesting the challenge lies in making other companies aware of more progressive, inclusive industry policies.
“There are some good messages coming out in this area, but the problem is they are just not widespread enough and there isn’t the awareness in the industry of how to go about this,” Dr Kaur said.