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Xstrata Dreaming: The Struggle of Aboriginal Australians against a Swiss Mining Giant

by Michael DeibertSpecial to CorpWatch
February 16th, 2009

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

The McArthur River winds through Australia’s remote Northern Territory creating lush floodplains that sustain vast herds of kangaroos, wallabies and cattle. Above them, finches, wild turkeys, and flocks of migratory birds fill an endless sky. The area around the river, which runs 300 kilometers before emptying into the Gulf of Carpentaria, also provides spiritual sustenance to the region’s four main Aboriginal linguistic groups: the Gurdanji, Yanyuwa, Garawa and Mara.

Australia’s indigenous culture is among the oldest continuously existing communities in the world, and one whose spiritual cosmology, known as the Dreamtime, ties its members closely to the land of their ancestors. At once a mythical time of creation and a present-day spiritual cycle, the Dreamtime includes such totemic animals as the Rainbow Snake, the Turtle and the Alligator. Rituals in tribute to these symbolic guides and protectors must be performed at certain times and in specific places around the expanse of this immense but sparsely populated continent.

Despite the region’s glaring lack of basic services, education and employment opportunities, Aboriginal residents value the McArthur River area for its spiritual wealth. But a multinational mining company’s pursuit of material riches threatens the core of this already beleaguered culture. In the 1950s, Mount Isa Mines (MIM), a mining concern based in neighboring Queensland state, discovered vast lead, silver and zinc deposits beneath and around the river, and conducted extensive exploratory drilling and feasibility studies.

The Yanyuwa had lived in the region for millennia and were able to legally claim the land in 1977 under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which allows indigenous people to establish ownership of land based on traditional occupation. Nonetheless, MIM, which by then had been operating in the area for three decades, began underground mining activities along the river in 1995.

In 2003, the government of the Northern Territory approved MIM’s application to transition from underground to above-ground (“open-cut”) mining, a process involving the diversion of the McArthur River. A short time later, MIM sold its operations to Switzerland-based Xstrata Plc, Europe’s largest zinc producer. Described on the company’s website as  “a global diversified mining group” with a “meaningful position in seven major international commodity markets: copper, coking coal, thermal coal, ferrochrome, nickel, vanadium, and zinc,” Xstrata has operations that span 18 countries.

Now, as full owners of McArthur River Mining Pty Ltd, Xstrata is authorized to extract 43 million tons of the resource over the next 20 years.

Environmental Impact

At first, both the Northern Territory’s Environmental Protection Agency and Environment Minister Marion Scrymgour recommended against allowing Xstrata’s shift to open-cut mining, warning of “significant uncertainties over the long term environmental impact associated with diverting the McArthur River and managing an open mine pit in the river flood plain.” Then, in October 2006 the region’s Mining Minister, Chris Natt, unexpectedly announced that the proposal had been approved, citing a new management plan that only the Northern Territory government and the mining company itself had seen. Natt’s position was echoed by then-Commonwealth Environment Minister Ian Campbell only days later.

Since that time, in a desperate effort to protect their homeland from large-scale industrial mining, the traditional owners of the McArthur River region have launched a tangle of lawsuits, pitting one of the world’s most marginalized communities against the power of a multibillion dollar multinational company and its allies at the highest levels of Australia government. It was a fight the traditional owners were never likely to win, but the circumstances and terms of the battle serve as a poignant and distressing commentary on the power that corporations can exercise over the lives of disenfranchised communities in Australia today.

Blood River

The story of Aboriginal Australians since the arrival of English settlers in 1788 has rarely been a happy one, and traditional spiritual life has been one of the few constants to which the community can cling.

Beginning in the late 18th century, England used Australia as a penal colony, and, later, as an important producer of products such as wool and wheat. While white Australians liked to refer to  “the lucky country,” the original inhabitants endured massacre and disenfranchisement. Large-scale killings of Aboriginal communities took place in regions as far apart as New South Wales and in the Northern Territory and as recently as 1928.

In addition to such public violence, between the late 1870s and early 1970s, thousands of indigenous children were removed – ostensibly for their own protection – from their families by federal and state agencies, often acting in collusion with various church missions. The policy created what became known as “the Stolen Generation.” A 1997 inquiry by Australia’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found that “the taking of indigenous children from their homes by force and their confinement to training homes, orphanages and mission dormitories amounted to deprivation of liberty and imprisonment in the meaning of the common law.”

The hole created by discrimination, unemployment and destruction of traditional cultural and family structures has increasingly been filled with alcohol abuse, despair and poverty.

Only 39 percent of the country’s 500,000 Aboriginals (2.4 percent of the population, a number that is often disputed) graduates from high school, compared with 75 percent for the population as a whole, according to 2002 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. The numbers are even worse of higher education: 21 percent of the Australian population as a whole holds a bachelor degree or higher, but only 4 percent of Aboriginals. Average household income for Aboriginal Australians was 60 percent of the non-indigenous average.

By 2008, the situation in rural Australia had grown so dire that Desert Knowledge Australia, a consortium of private sector, indigenous, governmental and non-governmental organizations, warned that “the situation in remote Australia has reached crisis point, with clear evidence that there is a ‘failed state’ at the heart of our nation and if this is not addressed there will be dire economic, social, cultural, environmental and security consequences for Australia as a whole.”

The plea was not taken lightly, coming on the heels of the 2007 Northern Territory National Emergency Response (popularly known as “the intervention”), an array of law-enforcement and social welfare measures that included such controversial moves as the restriction of alcohol sales and access to pornography in indigenous communities. Implemented by the Liberal government of then-Prime Minister John Howard, the measures came after the publication of a scathing report documenting widespread sexual abuse of children in the Northern Territory.

When Australia’s new Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, apologized before the country’s parliament last year for the historical treatment of indigenous Australians, he referred to “this blemished chapter in our nation’s history,” and said that his government sought to “apologize for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.” Many indigenous Australians welcomed the gesture, but others think that symbolic rhetoric has yet to be effectively translated into concrete action.

The Dead Heart


From the air, the McArthur operation looks like a vast wound. The open pit zinc mine covers 83 hectares and the tailing pond sprawls over an additional 210 hectares, held by a dam that has leaked sulphate into Surprise Creek. The McArthur River stutters through the countryside in an irregular path created when the company shifted 5.5 kilometers of its flow from its normal course.

“I come from this country and I was born where they have the McArthur mine,” says Harry Lansen, who, at 65 years old, is an elder and spiritual leader of the Gurdanji people around the town of Borroloola (population 800). “My land and all my sacred sites are there, they’ve all been damaged.”

Mining operations that cut across linguistic and clan lines of the important sites for the Rainbow Snake and Turtle dreaming ceremonies sparked exasperation at a recent gathering of local Aboriginal communities. The early February meeting was held in connection with Australian Minister for Environment Peter Garrett’s visit to Borroloola.

“That land has been damaged, and the company has never come to sit down and talk to us properly,” says Jack Green, a barrel-chested 56 year-old Garawa elder in a black cowboy hat. “Most of our information [on the mine] we picked up from the news or the television. They just didn’t want to talk to Aboriginal people.”

“We are really tied to this land through our songlines and ceremonies in this country,” Green continues. “We see a lot of those things are dying now, and we are really worried, as senior people, because we’ll have nothing left to show our kids if this keeps going. And the culture will fail, go down, die off.”

Though the destruction of spiritual sites has been a key bone of contention between Xstrata and some local residents, the mine’s impact on the region’s delicate environmental balance also worries indigenous and non-indigenous alike.

“We’ve seen dead mangroves, dead fish, dead turtles. ...The coral reef is disappearing, prawns are disappearing, mussels are disappearing and there is no sea grass at all,” says Greg Quayle, a white 51-year-old former miner who fishes professionally in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the McArthur River empties out. “The local people, they live on the fish here, and I do it commercially. People don’t recognize how pristine this place was 10 years ago as opposed to what it’s becoming.”

One Step Forward...

The pessimism that comes with centuries of discrimination lifted briefly in December 2008, when the Northern Land Council, which represents traditional Aboriginal landowners, won a stunning victory. Australia’s Federal Court ruled against Xstrata’s plan to expand the McArthur River mine.

Citing lack of transparency in the original decision-making progress, the court placed the onus on making a new decision about the mine’s viability on the shoulders of Minister for Environment Peter Garrett, a former lead singer for Midnight Oil, a rock band whose music has advocated strongly for environmental responsibility and Aboriginal rights.

“I see my role in this case to insure that we properly and effectively discharge the national environmental legislation and responsibilities,” Garrett told Corpwatch in Borroloola when asked about the Rudd government’s position on the mine. “This government takes very seriously the whole question of empowering and supporting Aboriginal people to build sustainable livelihoods, to be involved in active land management and to develop the skills basis necessary for them over the longer term.”

Xstrata responded with a threat: “ If we do not have a decision by the Federal Government on whether we can continue mining at the McArthur River Mine by that date, we will unfortunately have no other option than to lay off 300 workers and suspend all operations at MRM, putting the operation into care and maintenance for an indefinite period,” Xstrata Zinc Australia Chief Operating Officer Brian Hearne said in a company press release.

Less than two weeks after his visit to Borroloola, Peter Garrett announced that the Australian government was granting conditional approval for Xstrata to expand its McArthur River mine.

An Ongoing Struggle

For its part, Xstrata vigorously objects to any suggestion of wrongdoing.

“[We] completely reject claims that the mine has not properly consulted with local traditional owners...And that the mine has impacted on scared sites located [there],” said Xstrata’s Australia Chief Operating Officer, Brian Hearne, in a 27 January written response to questions submitted to the company. “[We have] spent years consulting with local indigenous leaders and communities throughout the mine’s planning and approval process. We have listened to all concerns expressed and will continue to do so.”

It was not the first time the company had been charged with damaging the environment. In 2003, Xstrata admitted to having polluted South Africa’s Sandspruit waterway with runoff from a company-owned chrome mine.

In the case of the McArthur River operations, Xstrata has “verified that the mine has not adversely affected the Gulf Marine environment,” said Hearne, referring to monitoring that had been conducted of the area by researchers from the Northern Territory’s Charles Darwin University.

But the Australian government’s decision, coming after so many years of broken promises – along with Xstrata’s unyielding stance – was met with disappointment by many in the Northern Territory.

“We own a lot of land in the Northern Territory and we want to develop it,” says Kim Hill, the Northern Land Council’s chief executive. “But we also want to preserve it and protect it as our forefathers have done for thousands of years...This is not only to save jobs but to secure a future, economic, social and cultural, for many generations to come.”

Traditional owners echo that call.

“The company is not really talking to us properly, the government is not listening to us,” says Jack Green, the Garawa elder. “We’re asking for help from outside, for some help here in Borroloola so we can get back on our feet.”


Michael Deibert is the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti (Seven Stories Press). His blog can be read at  www.michaeldeibert.blogspot.com.