EJ Series Part 8: The story of environmental justice and access to land for Borroloola community

‘All over Australia, Aboriginal communities are mobilising to fight the forces of colonisation and resource extraction’. SEI Honours Research Fellow Jodie Pall explores the unevenly distributed impacts of the McArthur River Mine on the Borroloola community and Aboriginal responses to this environmental justice issue.

Image by Adwo via Shutterstock

Environmental Justice is always strengthened through community efforts and involvement, because communities know best what they need and how to manage resources to serve environmentally just outcomes. In Australia, when Aboriginal communities are positioned as key decision-makers about environmental resource management, decisions are made that preserve biodiversity, resource regeneration and equity of use. However, governments and multi-national corporations rarely acknowledge concerns or make space for the genuine involvement of Aboriginal people in development projects. Aboriginal people are usually tokenised, manipulated in or neglected from decision-making around resource management. This doesn’t stop campaigns led by Aboriginal people from being staunch in their opposition to dodgy and reckless business where it threatens livelihoods and country.

While there are many excellent examples of Aboriginal-led campaigns in Australia including the Save the Kimberley campaign, the Muckaty campaign and the Wangan and Jagalingou people’s fight against the proposed Adani coal mine, this blog post outlines the story of the clan groups of Borroloola fighting to protect their country and livelihoods from fracking, contamination and exploitation by multinational mining corporations, Glencore and Xstrata. This is just one ongoing story of Aboriginal resistance that highlight the determination, creativity and strength of grassroots community resistance campaigns.

Jacky Green, Heart of our Country, 2013

The McArthur River Mine is one of the world’s largest lead, zinc and silver mines, and is just southwest of the township of Borroloola in the southwest Gulf of Carpentaria region of the Northern Territory.

Glencore and Xstrata are notoriously known for dealing poorly with waste rock and toxic waste water. For decades the mine has been slowly polluting the McArthur River and its tributaries with lead. It is likely that toxic drainage will further pollute streams, rivers and groundwater systems which are relied upon by the Borroloola community.

The Gudinji, Gawarra, Yanyula and Mara groups of Borroloola are most affected by the mine, because it is built on Gudanji ancestral country, because it compromises the clan groups’ access to hunting lands and sacred sites and because it pollutes the birds and fish which are important traditional food sources. It also becomes difficult to manage country with traditional practices when clan groups are denied access. At the heart of this environmental injustice is the unequal distribution of the benefits and costs associated with large-scale development in the region, as it is Aboriginal people who bear the cost of development which includes contamination of water, territories and food resources from mining activity. As Elder Nancy Yukuwal stated, “I grew up in that river and now I cannot see any food in the river that we used to eat. They are all gone, dying from the McArthur River mine.”

For 30 years, the Borroloola people have resisted expansion and development of this mine. They have resisted the destruction of sacred sites and fought to maintain access to unpolluted food and water resources. Despite this, Glencore and Xstrata have ignored the community and are still swinging toward expanding existing mines and developing new ones. In 2011, the Northern Territory government approved the expansion, with even less monitoring and reparation.

The resistance to mining has taken many forms. Aboriginal artist Jacky Green, in the long history of his paintings, have portrayed the history of mining in Gulf country and has travelled Australia with many exhibitions to tell the story of social and environmental injustice.

An advertisement for an Exhibition by Jacky Green and Therese Ritchie called Open Cut. Artist Jacky Green features in the centre with ‘open cut’ painted across his chest.

In 2014, Borroloola Elders marched across the McArthur River Bridge as part of the International Day of Action against Fracking. More recently, Borroloola community members have also extended solidarity to other communities in the NT by taking part in a massive community effort to call on the Territory government to permanently ban fracking in the NT. In November 2017, the Borroloola township was the first in the Northern Territory to declare themselves Fracking Gasfield Free, marking a historical moment as they are the first Aboriginal town in Australia to do so.

In 2016, a multi-generational delegation from Borroloola travelled to Sydney to protest outside Glencore’s headquarters. The community’s demands at this time were for Glencore to close the mine, commit to take responsibility for toxic waste and assist the Borroloola community in the clean-up process. The protests were organised with international solidarity in mind, as protests in Peru, Bangladesh, Zambia and South Africa also protested on the day Glencore had its corporate annual general meeting. When possible, a delegation from the Borroloola people travel around Australia telling their story and allowing opportunities for solidarity between community groups.

The dynamic between Aboriginal people and corporate interests competing over access to land has been complicated by the much-needed employment to a place with few mainstream opportunities. As Sean Kerins explored in their presentation to the Environmental Justice conference held by SEI in 2017, mining companies have engaged in blackmailing and tactics to divide community members, and has put millions of dollars into community development to off-set the damaging effects of the mine. Corporate tactics have caused conflict between clans and family groups in Borroloola, making the fight against mining much more difficult.

The benefits and costs of the McArthur Mine are unevenly distributed, and are likely to leave legacy issues for the Aboriginal people in Borroloola. Nevertheless, Borroloola Elders and other campaigners against the McArthur Mine have vowed to defend Gulf country from future destruction. For some Aboriginal elders, it’s a life project. All over Australia, Aboriginal communities are mobilising to fight the forces of colonisation and resource extraction. For those fighting for climate justice in Australia, these are the kinds of campaigns that we should be familiar with and support, because our fight is one-and-the-same.

The Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network are building an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander movement for climate justice, and you can support their campaigns here.

Keep in touch with the anti-mining campaign to protect the McArthur River by following the Borroloola Community Change-Makers on Facebook.

Jodie Pall is a Honours Research Fellow at SEI and received the University Medal in 2017. Her research developed a tool named BayesReef for understanding the environmental histories of coral reefs and for predicting the impact of climate change on reef growth using Bayesian inference and numerical models. Outside of work, Jodie is a member of the Australian Student Environment Network (ASEN) and the #StopAdani campaign and is deeply committed to climate justice.