No energy boom without Indigenous consent, say advocates

Article for NITV

Australia’s renewable energy boom hinges on the involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their consent to build major projects on cultural lands, advocates say.

The First Nations Clean Energy Network, which brings together community, government and industry to shape renewables’ future, is in Melbourne for a two-day symposium.

The group launched in November and Original Power executive director Karrina Nolan said it has been busy organising and engaging with governments on policy reform.

“The response that we’ve had so far from the Albanese government is that they understand the need to transition fast but that First Nations communities must be central,” the Yorta Yorta woman told AAP.

“It’s our lands and borders that will be impacted and the consent and involvement of our traditional owners is going to make or break that transition.”

In May, Traditional Owners and Rio Tinto signed an agreement to guide cultural heritage management after the mining giant blew up 46,000-year-old rock shelters at WA’s Juukan Gorge in 2020.

Rio had legal permission to destroy the sacred caves under WA’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act but conceded it breached the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples’ trust.

“We’ve learned so much from the mining industry from the past and don’t want to see those mistakes repeated. We’re trying to reset the relationship,” Ms Nolan said.

“The State of the Environment report talks about really unacceptably high levels of cultural heritage destruction. So if we don’t get this right, there is the risk that we’ll see that kind of thing happen again.”

Indigenous peoples’ estate is under siege with the expectation their involvement ends in handing over their land for big development projects, National Native Council chair Kado Muir said.

“This is an old and outdated way of thinking,” he said.

“We want to be active participants in the economy of renewable energy, as owners of projects, technology and power distribution into markets.”

Better engagement with Indigenous peoples should be a win-win as it can unlock new energy investments and pave the way for renewables to address the nation’s current supply issues, network steering group member Chris Croker said.

Federal Assistant Climate Change and Energy Minister Jenny McAllister is scheduled to speak at the symposium on Friday morning.

“First Nations people will be essential to Australia’s clean energy transition, with the potential to build strong partnerships and opportunities for community,” she said in a statement.

Among topics on the symposium’s agenda will be how industry can promote strong, productive relationships with Indigenous communities, and community-owned renewable projects.

According to a research paper published in the Medical Journal last month, Indigenous Australians living in remote, shabby housing with unstable electricity connections in the NT’s extreme heat are enduring life-threatening conditions.

Excessive heat, poor housing, energy insecurity and chronic disease have reached critical levels and a multi-sector response is needed to avert catastrophe, Australian National University researcher Simon Quilty said.

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