Why agreements matter
Well-designed and implemented agreements with traditional owners reduce
transaction costs by providing greater legal certainty and by defining
‘rules of engagement’ for dealing with disagreements and disputes,
reducing the likelihood of future legal and political challenges.
Companies that have a poor reputation for how they deal with Indigenous
peoples will find it more difficult to secure access to new resources
and new geographies than those companies that can demonstrate a
successful track record of agreement making and implementation.
It is in the long-term interests of companies to be able to demonstrate
to communities, governments and others that mining can deliver
long-term benefits to Indigenous communities. Well-designed agreements
are one of the key ways of achieving this.
Agreements can help companies meet obligations under cultural heritage
laws and have the potential to contribute to improved environmental
management practices (e.g. by drawing on Indigenous environmental
knowledge and involving local people in environmental management).
The Ngarluma people and Rio Tinto Iron Ore
Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore operations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia
span 15 active mines, 1,700 kilometres of railway and four independent port
terminals. The company has participation agreements with the nine
Aboriginal groups that are traditional owners of the land where mining and
infrastructure are located.
In 2012, the Iron Ore business was in the midst of a massive expansion of
its operations. This included development of new mines and expansion of
existing mines and associated infrastructure. The port and rail
infrastructure critical to the expansion program were situated within the
traditional lands of the Ngarluma people, who had already been
significantly impacted by mining developments in this area since the 1960s.
The cultural heritage surveys and site clearance assessments required to
progress with the expansion program involved an unprecedented volume of
work within short time frames. The existing participation agreement
provided a platform to discuss implementing new cultural heritage practices
to meet these work demands. Negotiating under special circumstances
required robust relationships that would support joint efforts to find a
solution and allow all parties to benefit from positive market conditions.
The Ngarluma people
The land of the Ngarluma people includes a section of the Pilbara coast and
extends inland towards the Chichester Ranges. When mining operations were
established in the inland Pilbara during the 1960s and 1970s, railway and
port infrastructure was created within this land. An initial construction
workforce was later followed by a permanent residential population in the
newly established towns of Dampier, Wickham and Karratha. These
developments had an enormous impact on the land and society of the Ngarluma
Despite this, the Ngarluma people have retained a strong cultural identity
and connections to their country. In 2005, these connections were formally
recognised in a native title determination, one of the first for the
The mining boom in 2012 required significant expansion of the existing Cape
Lambert port and the rail infrastructure running through Ngarluma country.
For the Ngarluma people, many of whom had lived through the societal
changes that came with the original mining development of the Pilbara,
these expansions were viewed as a potential source of further upheaval to
their existing ways of life, their cultural lands and identity.
Facilitating engagement on cultural heritage
In 2011, Rio Tinto Iron Ore and the Ngarluma people finalised a
comprehensive participation agreement. This provided a formal governance
structure to discuss the proposed port and infrastructure expansion, as
well as the necessary cultural heritage surveys over this land.
In negotiating the agreement, a key concern for the Ngarluma people was to
ensure that comprehensive cultural heritage surveys would be undertaken by
the Ngarluma people in conjunction with cultural heritage professionals
prior to any mining activities taking place. Furthermore, the agreement
recognised that some places were of such significance to the Ngarluma
people that they would be excluded from mining or other development
impacts. Acknowledging this point was key to finalising the agreement with
the Ngarluma people.
The agreement also included a cultural heritage protocol which set out the
processes for notifying the Ngarluma people of heritage survey requests,
how these surveys would be conducted and the recommendations for managing
cultural heritage identified during the survey.
Agreeing special terms for cultural heritage surveys
The Iron Ore business's Heritage team determined that all necessary
cultural heritage surveys needed to be completed within an 18 month
timeframe. Added to the challenge was that Rio Tinto was not the only
developer proceeding with expansion at this time, meaning other companies
were also seeking involvement from Ngarluma representatives on project
planning. The resulting demands on the Ngarluma people’s resources were
Both parties agreed that the steps and process surrounding cultural
heritage surveys should not change where this could compromise the quality
of the work undertaken. The health and safety of all people involved in the
surveys was of paramount concern and no changes in the survey model could
compromise health and safety. It was also agreed that previously identified
significant cultural heritage places would continue to be protected; and
the expansion would remain within the levels of ‘acceptable change’
determined in the agreement.
Two full-time cultural heritage survey teams were established as a result
of these discussions. These teams included Ngarluma people, independent
heritage consultants and Rio Tinto’s Heritage employees who would work on a
regular roster program to complete the required cultural heritage surveys.
This approach benefited both parties; providing certainty for the company
that the work would be completed within a specific timeframe and certainty
around employment opportunities for Ngarluma people, rather than standard
cultural heritage survey practices, which were more sporadic and shorter in
In all, the equivalent of 20 full-time positions were devoted to conduct
the cultural heritage surveys by Rio Tinto and Ngarluma people over a 16
month period with 116 surveys completed during that time. The number of
days spent conducting cultural heritage surveys more than doubled from the
previous year. This was only possible because of the streamlined roster
Furthermore, there was no lost time due to injury or any significant
medical treatment cases and no unauthorised impacts to cultural heritage
Good relationships enable benefits to be shared
The agreement provided the necessary governance structure to enable the
initial discussions between the Iron Ore business and the Ngarluma people
for determining the terms under which cultural heritage surveys were to be
conducted. The strengthened relationship enabled the cultural heritage
surveys to continue over the 16 month period relatively unimpeded, which
meant the land clearance requirements for the expansion program were met.
During and immediately following this period, a regular flow of information
about the expansion plans was provided to the Ngarluma people. In turn, the
results and recommendations resulting from the cultural heritage surveys
were implemented as construction began to proceed.
By following this process, Rio Tinto was able to gain the necessary land
access within the preferred timeframes.
By working through the logistical challenges, all parties were able to make
the most of the positive market conditions. Going forward, the requirements
of the agreement continue in respect to cultural heritage survey
requirements. The improved relationship and flexibility shown by both
parties under these special circumstances provides a solid framework for
Western Cape communities’ coexistence agreement – logistics and other
Agreements require ongoing commitment to the ‘big issues’ and attention to
the ‘small stuff’ to ensure they are effectively implemented over time.
Much of this work relates to process, including the logistics involved in
The Western Cape Communities Coexistence Agreement (WCCCA), signed in March
2001, governs Rio Tinto’s engagement with the traditional owners of the
land on which Rio’s key bauxite mine leases are situated in far north
The Agreement was signed by 11 traditional owners groups – the Alngith,
Anathanangayth, Ankamuthi, Peppan, Taepadhighi, Thanikwithi, Tjungundji,
Warranggu, Wathayn, Wik and Wik-Waya, and Yupungathi peoples.
The 11 traditional owner groups are each represented by two committee
members. Meetings with these 22 members (or their proxies) involve
coordinating multiple movements across remote north Queensland simply to
get people ‘around the table’.
Distances are significant, with more than 800 kilometres between some
family groups. Several representatives are completely cut off in the wet
season and are only able to attend if charter flights are arranged. Other
logistics include arranging long distance road transport, accommodation and
meals while members attend meetings.
These matters can be complex under any circumstances, but more so when
communities live in areas that are exposed to extreme weather conditions
that include monsoons and cyclones.
Family commitments and other cultural aspects can also increase the degree
of difficulty in ensuring that meetings have the required quorum. It’s
vital that the company and the WCCCA Executive Office work together with
representatives and others on these matters.
Experience suggests that close co-ordination between all parties is
essential if meetings are to take place so that agreement implementation
can proceed. Likewise, communication is no simple task. Access to mobile
phones and other technology has certainly made the challenge easier in
recent years, but not everyone has access to technology.
Notices of committee meetings are still communicated by word of mouth and
posted on every community noticeboard to ensure that all bases are covered.
Regular scheduled community visits by the Weipa Communities team are
essential for both relationship-building and communication about agreement
implementation and its outcomes.
Image 1: Cape Lambert expansion. Copyright © 2017 Rio Tinto.
Image 2: (L-R) Steven Hall, Maryann Coconut and Rio Tinto employees engage in community consultation at Weipa, Queensland. Copyright © 2017 Rio Tinto.
Images copyright © Rio Tinto 2017
Text copyright © Rio Tinto March 2016. Reproduced with permission from Rio Tinto. This content comprises excerpts from Why Agreements Matter: a resource guide for integrating agreements into Communities and Social Performance work at Rio Tinto.