There are mining companies and then there are mining companies.
There can be no doubt, when one walks the streets of the CBD that Perth is a mining town. All the major buildings are emblazoned with mining company logos, all the big boys and a few little ones, too. It radiates out from St Georges Terrace to nearby suburbs, like West Perth, where there are small exploration, logistics and speculative companies that all make their money from mining.
And, if Australians know about West Australian industry, they know about mining. Living here also gives one an appreciation that there is something particular to Perth, and, being a citizen of this city means one gains information on mining almost by osmosis. And so, we are led back to the statement: there are mining companies and then there are mining companies.
People on the ground talk about the differences in benefaction, how company A might spend more money for the community whereas company B might do a lot of window dressing, where they might be interested in advertising its corporate social responsibility rather than meeting it.
There is, of course, a lot of mining to go round and it is in all regions of the State, to some extent or another. And yet, the Pilbara is where the action takes place. So, what are we to make of the recent decision by Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) to reject a resolution by shareholders to place a moratorium on the desecration and destruction of Aboriginal sacred sites?
Let’s first be clear about what is happening here.
FMG is Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest’s company. It is run by him, following on from an initial business in Anaconda, which is somehow never talked about. Forrest, it will be remembered from a previous essay, is royalty in Perth, going all the way back to his forebear in John Forrest, the first Premier. Needless to say, he is entitled and makes his presence felt in every aspect of life here. That is why FMG’s latest decision is cause for concern, and, is also his responsibility.
As The Guardian reported:
The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility had sought two resolutions after Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara in May. One was for FMG to adopt a moratorium on activities that would disturb, destroy or desecrate Aboriginal heritage sites, to be reviewed annually by the board, and the second was for FMG to disclose its lobbying on cultural heritage issues by “any industry association of which it is a member”.
Both resolutions are important in thinking about what is lost by mining in the Pilbara and elsewhere. They speak to the current moment after Juukan Gorge and are important to discuss in what we want to happen on land that always was and always will be Aboriginal.
This denial to even debate the resolutions, let alone adopt them, was based on a technicality: paperwork being filed. This decision speaks to the values of FMG, which many have detailed in the past and are still subject to scrutiny.
It seems remarkable, recalcitrant and in bad faith for any company to deny a debate about sacred sites that matter for their historical value, world importance and ongoing relationship to traditional owners. What matters then is how we consider Country, especially in light of Juukan Gorge and elsewhere. The Pilbara, like everywhere on this continent, is sacred land, sovereign land, and, sometimes, stolen land.
Starting with that assumption rather than thinking it is all a personal resource for you to exploit no matter the cost really matters.
And so, there are mining companies and then there are mining companies. If the sacking of executives at Rio Tinto was an act of contrition, it was at least a step in the right direction. It won’t, however, solve the power imbalance with Indigenous community relations. But FMG’s latest decision is incredibly tone-deaf. It speaks to a parochial desire to deny the sanctity of this place, which many traditional owners recognise and which many non-Indigenous citizens also support.
It is also in very poor taste to do just that in the current climate. One can think of all the business reasons in the world, one can think of personal ideology, one can think that this is a slippery slope to the end of all mining. Those would all be valid, if somewhat misguided, positions to take when you run a company. And yet, it is taste, that most subjective of measures, where we must look and look again at what is happening in cultural heritage in Western Australia.
It was in poor taste to split a community to put in an iron ore mine. It was in poor taste to build a student hall and name it after yourself. It is a vulgar sensibility that so craves recognition, especially when the path to contentment lies in good acts with vulnerable people, not their continued exploitation. And all we have to blame is the courier who could not get the documents to an AGM on time.
Dr Robert Wood is chair of PEN Perth. A Malayali with East Indian Ocean connections, he lives on Noongar Country in Western Australia. The author of four books, Robert has held fellowships at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University.
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