Why agreements matter
In the early 1990s, a pivotal High Court decision in Australia reshaped our approach to engagement with Indigenous peoples. In response to a claim by Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo, the court ruled that the land was not “terra nullius” (belonging to no one). Shortly afterwards, the Native Title Act came into force, recognising native title to land. Breaking with the rest of the industry, which feared the implications of this new law, Rio Tinto instead welcomed it. Leon Davis, the company’s chief executive at the time, saw “major opportunities for growth in outback Australia which will only be realised with the full cooperation of all interested parties.”
In recognising that successful progress depended on active partnership with communities and Indigenous people, Davis was setting the vision for how Rio Tinto would operate in the future. Today, nearly 20 years after our first land use agreement was signed with Traditional Owner groups in Yandicoogina, Australia, we have negotiated more than 40 land use agreements around the world.
Janina Gawler, Rio Tinto’s global practice leader, Communities and Social Performance, underlines that agreements like the ground-breaking Argyle Participation Agreement are not “nice to haves” but essential to realising land access and mining opportunities today.
“At the time of the Native Title Act in Australia, we saw that agreements needed to be part of the way we do business. This has proven to be the case,” she said.
“At many sites, agreements have made it possible to secure a decision to invest and avoid a lengthy process of approval seeking.
“If you ask me why agreements matter I’d say it’s simple: they pay off both for Rio Tinto and the communities where we operate.”
In our publication Why agreements matter, Glen Camille, Eastern Guruma Elder, said that respecting culture and connection to land was important to building strong relationships between companies and Traditional Owner groups.
“If I look back at a saying from a great man, someone I respect and look up to as a great leader, Uncle Slim Parker he says: ‘Our culture is our culture, our law is our law, our land is our land and still is our land today,’” Glen said.
“If companies looked at building their relationships based on these principles, I think it would certainly build stronger relationships between the Traditional Owner groups and mining companies today.”