The Northern Territory government and a massive lead and zinc mine have been accused of misusing millions of dollars set aside for the benefit of traditional owners.
Glencore’s McArthur River Mine set up the $32 million community benefits trust in 2007 as a condition of expanding its operation, about 750km southeast of Darwin.
The fund was supposed to help people in the remote Borroloola region, which has a population of about 1200, 76 per cent of whom are Aboriginal, with an average age of 22 years.
But it’s mostly been used to pay for government infrastructure projects and a mine-jobs program, says Australian National University anthropologist Sean Kerins.
The mine and the NT government disagree, saying the trust has made major investments in long-term community programs in the Gulf Region in areas like health, education, economic development and culture.
Dr Kerins refutes this, saying the CBT has been “used as a cash cow by the mine and the NT government, who are the biggest beneficiaries”.
“The trust claims to have spent $15 million on over 100 projects that have changed lives in the region but there’s little evidence of long-term sustainable community benefits,” he says.
More than one million dollars was used to upgrade a bridge on a public road that should have been paid for by government, Dr Kerins says.
The trust is also funding MRM’s employment program but that benefits few local Aboriginal people.
“They’re dipping into the CBT because it’s so easy to do so,” he says.
Dr Kerins believes much of the problem goes back to how the trust was set up, with traditional owners shut out of negotiations and the NT government and MRM deciding how the trust would operate.
‘Refused to meet’
“The mine refused to meet with Aboriginal groups who wanted to organise under their law,” he says.
“Instead they parachuted in someone MRM chose and set up a proxy organisation with mine-links that didn’t represent the people.”
Garawa elder and Borroloola Aboriginal leader Jack Green says the trust should be handed over to the four Aboriginal groups in the region to decide how it’s used.
“That money was for community benefit,” he told the Juukan Gorge inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves in Western Australia, which is also looking into MRM.
“Community benefit means Aboriginal people or non-Aboriginal people. We’re supposed to benefit fairly.”
Mr Green also alleges the trust “knocked back” most Aboriginal funding applications.
“At the moment we’re just being given a bit of scrap money. It wouldn’t be enough to buy me a teabag.”
He argues the money should be used to build Aboriginal housing and fix roads in the communities.
“In some of the potholes there you can bury a Toyota,” he says.
Brisbane-based trust manager Plan C disagrees. Director Jim Gleeson saying he’s surprised by the allegations.
“The trust is not being dictated by a Glencore or NT government representative at all,” he says.
“It’s been very successful and highly valued by the community.”
Mr Gleeson says the trust’s project officers had a good connection with the community and the local directors were highly engaged.
In a statement, the NT government and trust directors said the CBT was governed by an independent board with nine members.
Five of them are residents of the region and represent the interests of the Gudanji, Garrwa, Yanyuwa and Marra people and the broader community.
All decisions about investments and the distribution of trust funds are made by the board.
“The government is satisfied significant CBT funds are being allocated to community programs for the NT Gulf region and these have resulted in significant benefits across areas including education, health and culture,” according to a spokesman.
Dr Keirns has also raised questions about the board’s Aboriginal members, saying they weren’t “freely chosen” by the community.
Mawurli and Wirriwangkuma Aboriginal Corporation, which assists the trust’s four Aboriginal board members, says the men were involved in all decisions about funds allocation.
They stand up for their people and culture, co-ordinator Andrew Firley says.
According to Mr Gleeson, the recently funded projects include a bus service, a community festival, a local football team, a youth music program, cultural documentation and a school breakfast program.
He says $3.5 million of trust funds were allocated between 2018 and 2020.
During the trust development, the NT Environmental Protection Authority was critical of MRM’s consultation process and structure, saying it was a conflict of interest and lacked transparency and accountability.
A KPMG report on the CBT in 2015 was also damming, saying the executive roles lacked clarity.
It asserted there were no methods for measuring project effectiveness, that women and young people were excluded and that community consultation was poor.
The report found the NT government and MRM should not be freely accessing trust funding.
Mr Gleeson says many of the recommendations have been or are in the process of being implemented.