This page belongs to: Critical Minerals Strategy 2023–2030

3. First Nations engagement and benefit sharing

Genuine engagement and collaboration with First Nations communities that promotes benefit sharing and respects the land and water rights and interests of First Nations people and communities.

Why action is needed

The Australian Government acknowledges and respects the unique relationship First Nations peoples and communities have with the environment including land, sea, waterways, flora and fauna.

Valuing First Nations land and water rights, cultural heritage and genuine engagement with First Nations communities is essential to Australia’s social and economic success. The benefits to be gained from the growth of Australia’s critical minerals sector, now and into the future, must be shared with and driven by the strengths and aspirations of the First Nations communities in which projects take place. Governments and industry are responsible for progressing meaningful engagement, agreement making and benefit sharing with First Nations communities.

More than 60 per cent of Australian resources projects, including exploration and extraction, operate on land covered by a Native Title claim or determination (Productivity Commission 2020). Proponents are required to negotiate land use and access. In the Northern Territory, approximately 50 per cent of the landmass is freehold Aboriginal land where Traditional Owners have the right to refuse consent or ‘veto’ any land access use proposals. First Nations landholders and communities are key stakeholders for the resources sector and essential to its future sustainability.

Engaging with First Nations communities risks being seen as simply a step in a checklist for approval, particularly where there are multiple complex approval processes. But effective engagement and consultation with First Nations communities can support meaningful negotiations for access to land and land use proposals under existing land rights legislation or the Native Title Act 1993, and provide local employment opportunities, skills development and investment in the community. This will improve outcomes for First Nations communities and support targets and outcomes under the National Agreement on Closing the Gap.

'Enabling and empowering First Nations to play a key and central role in Australia’s renewable energy transition, a transition which necessarily encompasses critical minerals, goes beyond just social licence issues – it presents a unique opportunity for Australia to design an economic system around energy and renewable energy infrastructure developments (and upstream and downstream value chains, including employment outcomes) that is fair and just and which can also positively impact and result in a range of other social and economic benefits for First Nations.'

– First Nations–led Peak Body

What we are already doing

The Australian Government is committed to engaging closely with First Nations people to implement the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full.

All levels of governments are working with First Nations Peoples, communities, organisations and businesses to implement the 2020 National Agreement on Closing the Gap at the national, state and territory, and local levels. This approach acknowledges that First Nations Peoples should determine, drive and own the desired outcomes, alongside government.

Cultural heritage and environmental protection reforms

The Government recognises First Nations peoples and communities have cultural responsibilities to care for Country, and that they play an important role in the conservation and sustainable use of Australia’s environment and heritage. We expect proponents to engage meaningfully with, and consider opportunities to partner with, First Nations peoples and businesses.  

Broadly, respectful and effective engagement includes, but is not limited to:

  • ensuring cultural capability
  • building and maintaining trust and respect
  • engaging early and often
  • negotiating suitable timeframes
  • building productive partnerships.

The Australian Government is pursuing an ambitious reform agenda to strengthen its cultural heritage and environmental protection legislation. As part of reforms to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), the Government is developing a National Environmental Standard for First Nations Engagement and Participation in Decision-Making. The standard is being developed through a co-design process with First Nations peoples.

The Government has released interim advice for proponents which outlines the statutory obligations for proponents and the Government’s expectations of proponents regarding respectful and effective engagement with First Nations people and communities under the EPBC Act.

In 2022, the Government committed to working in full and genuine partnership with First Nations peoples, state and territory governments and stakeholders to reform cultural heritage protections in response to the Joint Select Committee on Northern Australia’s final report into the destruction of Juukan Gorge. This includes developing new national First Nations heritage protection legislation. The Government is also partnering with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance on options to better protect Australia’s First Nations cultural heritage.

A group of Yued people in bushland with mining machinery in the background

Yued Traditional Owner representatives conducting cultural heritage monitoring at Chalice Mining’s Julimar Project. Photo credit: Chalice Mining Limited

Benefit sharing

The sector can share economic benefits with First Nations communities, which are often in regional and remote locations across Australia. This includes through the provision of jobs with local training and internships, local business and procurement opportunities, community shares and equity stakes in projects, and community grants funded through a Social Contribution Action Plan.

Strengthened engagement practices and collaborative partnerships between the sector and First Nations communities and their representative organisations will help empower Traditional Owners and their communities to capture the benefits of resource projects that operate on their land. This will provide flow on effects in terms of employment, income and wealth, asset building, and improved community cohesion and outcomes.

Developing the First Nations Clean Energy Strategy will ensure First Nations people have a say in energy policies and programs as we transition to net zero. This strategy will be co-designed with First Nations communities and organisations to ensure they share in the benefits of the transition to net zero.

The resources sector is already partnering with First Nations communities through initiatives to create opportunities and support an inclusive workforce.

Stronger engagement practices and partnerships with First Nations peoples will benefit the critical minerals sector’s immediate and long-term social licence to operate, its ongoing sustainability, and Australia’s ability to leverage its ESG credentials world-wide.

Case study

Northern Territory Indigenous Business Network (NTIBN)

The NTIBN Indigenous Business and Employment Hub officially opened in Darwin in April 2023. The NT Hub was co-designed with local First Nations business leaders, the Northern Territory Government and other key Northern Territory stakeholders to provide the right solutions for the local market. The hub has 2 satellite locations, in Katherine and Alice Springs. There are plans to open a fourth location in Tennant Creek in July 2023. The NTIBN hubs follow the successful NIAA-funded First Nations business and employment hubs in Western Sydney, Perth and Adelaide.

Each NTIBN Hub location provides in-person services and support alongside online programs to help people in remote and rural locations access new markets and job opportunities. It offers mentorship, business advice, training, seminars, networking events, a place to work and access to financial services. The hub supports Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses to become long-term and sustainable enterprises. It has specific targets to support the business aspirations of First Nations women and youth.

What we will do

The sector has the potential to create intergenerational social and economic benefits for First Nations people by building the prosperity of their communities, businesses and individuals – an outcome in the interests of all Australians. Nationally the mining industry is an important employer of First Nations Australians, particularly in regional and remote communities. The growth of the critical minerals sector will provide opportunities for First Nations communities now and into the future.

Key actions

  • Consider how the Government can help identify and encourage best-practice engagement between resources companies and First Nations communities. This involves engaging early on free, prior and informed consent, including under regulatory frameworks such as the Native Title Act and Aboriginal Land Right (Northern Territory) Act 1976.
  • The Minister for Resources, in consultation with the Minister for Indigenous Australians, will hold roundtable forums to initiate conversations on best-practice engagement opportunities and challenges in relation to the resources sector.
  • Work with representative and community sector organisations to consider ways to build the capacity of First Nations communities to engage effectively with critical minerals proponents.
  • The Minister for Indigenous Australians will work with native title holders, their Prescribed Bodies Corporate (PBCs), state and territory governments and other key stakeholders to strengthen PBC capacity, which can support improved engagement with the resources sector. 

Updates to this page

This page was updated on 29 June 2023 to clarify the location of freehold Aboriginal land under ‘Why action is needed’.