First Nations are taking control of clean energy projects in their land

Over half the projects that will extract vital minerals to drive global clean energy transformation overlap with Indigenous-held land.

The Pilbara region and Kimberley region of Australia have the highest rates of Indigenous land ownership and also some of the best-located wind and solar energy resources in the world. This abundance creates huge opportunities for energy exports and green products.

Nearly 60% of Australia has some form of First Nations rights and interests. This includes exclusive possession rights, which are similar to freehold rights, over a quarter. The stakes are high for all parties.

In 2020, after news Rio Tinto had

Rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, Western Australia. PKKP, PKKP Aboriginal Corporation/AAP

The long and hopeful return journey from Juukan Gorge

While there is still much to do, the signs of progress are encouraging.

The furor and the subsequent parliamentary investigation after the Juukan Gorge accident forced Rio Tinto CEO Jean Sebastien Jacques to resign. The companies were warned that they could no longer treat First Nations communities with disrespect. A research project shows that the clean energy industry is aware of its message.

Read more: The human factor: why Australia’s net zero transition risks failing unless it is fair.

Second, in 2021, the First Nations Clean Energy Network – a group of prominent First Nations community organizers, lawyers, engineers, and financial experts – was created and began to undertake significant advocacy work with governments and industry.

The network has published several helpful guides about best practices in First Peoples’ Country. Research shows that the clean energy industry pays attention to the network’s work.

Thirdly, it is unclear whether the Native Title Act permits large-scale clean-energy developments to proceed without the permission of native title holders. We are increasingly convinced that the only way for such products to receive approval under the Native Title Act is through an Indigenous Land Use Agreement.

Read more: The original and still the best: why it’s time to renew Australia’s renewable energy policy.

Moreover, Queensland and Western Australia have both implemented policies. South Australia is developing legislation that makes it clear these states will require renewable energy developers to negotiate an agreement with First Nations landholders. Because these agreements are voluntary, native title holders can refuse to allow large wind and solar farms in their Country.

First Nations Clean Energy Network installs solar panels at the Tennant Creek residence of Warumungu Traditional Owner Norman Jupurrurla Frank. First Nations Clean Energy Network/AAP

Caveats always accompany these decisions. The government can acquire land by force, and the power imbalances that we described in an earlier article still exist. Power corporations, unlike many Indigenous communities, can hire independent legal and technical advisors to review proposed projects and easily access financing when a local community wants to develop its project.

Partnerships that are promising on the path to net zero

Do First Nations peoples refuse to allow wind and solar power projects on their land, or are they just being unreasonable? They are not. The majority of significant projects that have been announced in recent years are a great example of First Nations control and ownership.

The partnership in Western Australia between Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and the renewable energy company ACEN plans to build 3 gigawatts worth of solar and wind infrastructure under Yindjibarndi’s exclusive possession native title. Mirning traditional owners hold equity stakes in one of the largest green energy projects in the world, the massive Why Australia urgently needs a climate plan and a Net Zero National Cabinet Committee to implement it

Further north, Balanggarra traditional owners, the MG Corporation and the Kimberley Land Council have together announced a landmark East Kimberley Clean Energy project aimed at producing green hydrogen and ammonia for export.

Desert Springs Octopus is a company owned by the Jawoyn Association and Larrakia Nation in the Northern Territory. Octopus Australia backs it up.

Trisha Birch is the general manager of Balanggarra Ventures. The company plans to build a renewable ammonia and hydrogen project in East Kimberley. Pollination/AAP

There is still much to be done to ensure that Indigenous communities have the proper consent and control. In its 2023 an outcry from farmers.

Read more: Made in America: how Biden’s climate package is fuelling the global drive to net zero

In New South Wales, some clean energy developers seem to be avoiding Aboriginal lands, perhaps because they think it will be easier to negotiate with individual landholders. The result is lost opportunities for partnership , much needed know-how and mutual benefit .

Not nearly enough was done in the case of mineral deposits that are critical to First Nations, or those located near them.

Why consenting to a free and informed prior is important

In order to ensure that the net zero transition will be fair, First Nations need to have their “free, informed, and prior consent” granted for any renewable energy project or critical mineral proposal on their lands and water, as the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states.

Net zero transition is a violation of this internationally recognized right as long as governments are able to acquire native titles to accelerate a renewable energy project, and that miners can mine critical minerals without the consent of native title holders.

The Commonwealth Government has accepted in principle the recommendations made by the Juukan Gorge Inquiry to review native title laws to address the inequalities of First Nations Peoples in their position when negotiating rights to their lands or waters.

Read more: The road is long and time is short, but Australia’s pace towards net zero is quickening

The meaningful participation of First Nations rights holders is critical to de-risking clean energy projects. Communities must decide the forms participation takes – full or part ownership, leasing and so on – after they have properly assessed their options. Rapid electrification through wind and solar developments cannot come at the expense of land clearing and loss of biodiversity.

Research shows that First Nations are prioritizing the protection of the environment when they negotiate land access for projects. This is good news for Australians.

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