The Multinational Monitor


I N D I G E N O U S   P E O P L E S

Australia: "Multinationals Are Invading"

At the Indigenous People's Conference in October, Multinational Monitor had the opportunity to hear about the Aboriginal encounter with multinationals from the Aboriginals themselves. The following is an edited version of an interview with Pat Dodson, chairman, and Shorty O'Neill, international representative, of the Federation of Land Councils, an organization uniting the land councils of the different Aboriginal tribes on the continent.

How are multinationals affecting Aboriginal people in Australia?

Multinationals are invading Aboriginal lands, the traditional areas where our people had been able to keep their culture reasonably intact. Since the 1950's, the multinationals have come in. They do not recognize the Aboriginal people as the owners of the land.

On one reserve, Aboriginal people were forcibly removed from their houses at gun point and put onto a boat. Their houses and the whole village was burnt down in front of them, and they were transported 400 miles up the coast to another place. As a consequence, a lot of those people died.

When you take an Aboriginal person from his land, you take him from the spirit that is giving him life; that spirit cannot be regenerated in some other place. So you end up with shells of human beings, living in other people's countries.

And when multinationals come in, they bring the kind of society, the kinds of needs, that belong to the non-Aboriginal world. This leaves us with many socially destabilizing problems, such as cultural disintegration and alcoholism. Aboriginal people become fringe dwellers on the outskirts of mining operations.

What multinational companies operate on your lands?

Rio Tinto Zinc, British Petroleum, Alcoa, AMAX, Western Mining, Kaiser, Exxon, Shell, Getty.

What environmental impact have these companies had on Aboriginal lands?

Complete destruction.

For instance, there's a uranium mine situated on a very large river. With all the tailings (waste products) and other pollutants that go into the river, the Aboriginal people of the area are losing half of their diet, which derives from that river. The people were finding that the fish were giving them a strange disease because of the pollution coming out of the mining operation.

The people from the tribe have always been against the uranium mining, and still stand today strongly against the development of that mine.

What protection or rights do you have under Australian law when a company is attempting to mine on your land?

The multinationals deal with the governments, and the governments give the companies permission over the heads of the Aboriginal people.

For instance, in Western Australia, the minister of mines and energy has the power of veto over the Aboriginal people and the minister responsible for Aboriginal people. So if the people there objected to mining taking place, they would be overruled by the minister of energy.

There are only a few areas in Australia where Aboriginal people are able to negotiate land titles and mining control under the law, and this is only in the Northern Territory and in the northern part of South Australia.

How are you responding to the threat multinationals are posing to you?

Domestically, there have been many demonstrations. Aboriginal people and their supporters have set up protest camps on the sites where companies plan to mine. And when Alcoa sponsored an international sporting event, Aboriginal people disrupted it. It was a peaceful disruption and got a lot of press coverage.

Legal challenges are another front. In the last five years, we have won three major cases, one was against Alcoa.

And we have gone international, particularly on Rio Tinto Zinc. We have gone to London (headquarters of the company). At every annual shareholders meeting of Rio Tinto Zinc over the past five years, we have had someone there, openly attacking them, explaining to shareholders what Rio Tinto Zinc is doing on our lands.

We are also trying to unite the different groups within England and throughout the world who are affected by Rio Tinto Zinc's unhealthy dealings. We are trying to join up with unions, the disarmament campaign, and conservationists.

All of these things are making corporations take notice of the Aboriginal people. We are becoming a very important issue. At least the companies are starting to act a little more responsibly than what they used to. It does have an influence on the corporations, but it doesn't mean we stop the protest.

How do you see the campaign for Aboriginal rights progressing over the next few years?

Our opposition to mining companies will continue until such time as our people have got control over our resources, and can do the things that we want to do in a self-developmental style.

We will continue until we have complete sovereignty over our lands, the lands that we live on.

The only way that this struggle can end is when the governments and the multinational companies realize that we are a sovereign people, and that we must have our own self-determination. And by that we mean the right to make our own laws, and the right to run our own country the way we want to run it.

Aborigines Battle Mining Firms

When the Europeans first arrived in Australia in 1788, some 300,000 Aboriginal people were living on the continent. By 1971, the Aboriginal population had fallen to 106,000 - the result of 19th century massacres and disease.

Currently, the Aboriginal people face an additional threat: that of the multinational corporations. These companies want to mine the natural resources - such as bauxite and uranium - that lie under Aboriginal land.

For the most part, the Aboriginal people have not had the power to stop the companies, which ally with Australia's federal and state governments.

But the Aboriginal people have not taken the assault lying down either. Beginning in the early 1970's, Aboriginal people pressed their land rights before the Australian government. In response to the growing grass roots campaign for Aboriginal land rights, the federal government passed the Aboriginal Land Rights Act in 1976. Applicable only to the Northern Territory, the act created an Aboriginal Lands Council to negotiate land use, and established an Aboriginal Lands Commission to process land claims. Deficient in a number of respects, the Act nonetheless marked a significant victory for Aboriginal rights in the Northern Territory.

In other states of Australia, however, Aboriginal people have not fared so well. For instance, in Western Australia two years ago, the U.S.-based AMAX corporation began exploring for oil on land held sacred by the Yungngora people (see MM, July 1980). More than 1,000 members of the Yungngora protested AMAX's project, but the government of Western Australia not only ignored the protests, it actually provided AMAX with police protection, escorting the company's oil drillers onto the Aboriginal lands.

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