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If Australia Wants to be a Green Energy Superpower, It Needs to Include Its Aboriginal Communities

16 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

This story was produced in partnership with the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), Australia’s multi-cultural and multilingual broadcaster. SBS correspondent Aneeta Bhole reported from the Northern Territory.

The contents of Norman Frank’s fridge could mean the difference between life and death. His doctor told him to drink cold water for his kidney trouble, and to keep his medicines, which help manage his diabetes and other health problems, chilled. But he doesn’t have a full-time job, and struggles to afford electricity.

So Frank, a 49-year-old Warumungu Traditional Owner—a term used in Australia to describe members of an Aboriginal group with historical claims to land—uses the power he gets from the utility company sparingly. And he says what he does use is expensive. For the home where he lives with his wife and five children in Tennant Creek, a town on the fringes of Australia’s vast Northern Territory deserts, the monthly electric bill runs about $200, he says. After other necessities like rent and food, he’s left with almost nothing of his government disability pension at the end of the month.

In July, the nonprofit Original Power, an Aboriginal community organization that focuses on energy issues, helped Frank install solar panels that stretch about half the length of the roof of his government-owned one-story, three-bedroom house, as part of a campaign to help Aboriginal people overcome barriers to accessing renewable energy. With almost 300 sunny days per year, Tennant Creek has some of the clearest skies in the world. But although the physical infrastructure to produce solar energy may be in place on Frank’s roof, the Northern Territory has not yet produced the corresponding bureaucratic infrastructure that will allow him to use it. It’s a matter not of science but of tariff systems, prepaid meters and permissions, and without all of them, the solar panels are useless to Frank.

Norman Frank’s daughter Neetu, Nina and grandson Ashuan sit in the dark in order to conserve energy in his home in Tennant Creek
Frank’s daughter Neetu, Nina, and grandson Ashuan sit in the dark in order to conserve energy in his home in Tennant CreekAneeta Bhole—SBS

Meanwhile, three hours north of Frank’s home, up a two-lane highway that slices through desert scrub, sits the proposed site of what could be the world’s largest solar farm. The $22 billion Sun Cable project would generate 17 to 20 gigawatts of solar power, equivalent to about 30% of what Australia’s current grids can deliver. But the project is not meant to help power Frank’s home, and it won’t alleviate the crippling energy poverty faced by many Aboriginal communities across Australia’s vast interior. The electricity it generates will be sent to Darwin, the capital and largest city of the Northern Territory, and to Singapore, via a 2,600-mile undersea cable. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Extractive industries like mineral mining and fossil fuels have made Australia one of the richest countries in the world, but that wealth has accrued unequally, often bypassing the people who live on the land that is exploited.

For the world to reach net-zero emissions, solar panels and wind turbines will need to cover great expanses of the earth, and the extraction of minerals like lithium, crucial for the batteries that store power, will need to rise exponentially. All of this will require vast swaths of undeveloped land, which includes territories around the globe under the ownership or stewardship of Indigenous people.

In Australia, advocates and activists hope that the renewable push will be an opportunity to reset a historically toxic relationship between many Aboriginal communities and large-scale developers building on their land, and to address the need for more affordable energy, especially as climate change pushes temperatures to extremes. Whether Australia can transform itself into a renewable-energy superpower will also be crucial for the world’s fight against climate change. Including its fossil-fuel exports, the country’s footprint is about 5% of global emissions—despite having just about 0.33% of the world’s population—according to the advocacy group Climate Analytics.

READ MORE: Australia’s Wildfires and Climate Change Are Making One Another Worse in a Vicious, Devastating Circle

But Australia’s nascent green-energy revolution may already be leaving Aboriginal people behind. “Some of us aren’t transitioning out of anything,” says Karrina Nolan, a descendant of the Yorta Yorta people and the executive director of Original Power. “We haven’t even enjoyed some of the benefits other people have had from coal mining for the last century. Some of our people don’t even have power.”

More than 40% of Australia’s landmass is under Native Title, a law recognizing Aboriginal people have varying rights to live or hunt on the land. The relationship with the land is a fundamental part of Aboriginal identity. Modern Australian law, however, takes a less holistic view; Native Title is not the same as ownership, and Aboriginal people typically can’t veto proposed projects on native-titled land that they don’t want. Developers are required only to negotiate “in good faith” for six months to try to reach an agreement with the community. Sometimes, voluntary agreements include millions of dollars in compensation and other benefits like guaranteed jobs and investment in local infrastructure. But in other cases, they do not. Further, these are entirely voluntary—projects can proceed apace even if a community holding Native Title never agrees.

Marlinja town sign, seen on Sept. 28
Marlinja town sign seen on Sept. 28Aneeta Bhole—SBS

The legal situation reflects a stark imbalance of power between resource companies, which are some of the richest and most politically connected entities in Australia, and Aboriginal people. Peter Yu, a Yawuru man who is the former executive director of the Kimberley Land Council, an Aboriginal land-rights organization in northwest Australia, notes that Aboriginal people make up only around 3% of the Australian population: “We offer very little in terms of that in a political, parliamentary sense. So, we’re vulnerable and powerless in that regard.”

In addition, despite some gains after generations of discrimination, Aboriginal people as a group earn about 40% less and face unemployment rates over three times as high as non-Aboriginal Australians. Outcomes are especially bad in remote communities, where there is less economic opportunity. There are efforts to change that, but Aboriginal people especially remain marginalized and often don’t have the business, legal or financial experience—or the money— to effectively negotiate with large powerful companies.

Negotiations between private companies and Aboriginal groups are often facilitated by local land councils, organizations that help Aboriginal groups manage their traditional lands. When large companies offer royalty payments to get local buy-in, it can be enticing for such councils, given that they are often tasked with acting on behalf of communities without other revenue sources. But even when companies promise things like jobs and to boost the local economy, experts say, they often overpromise and underdeliver.

Sun Cable’s project is ambitious: to pair the world’s largest solar farm with the world’s most powerful battery, and transport the resulting power to Asia via the world’s longest undersea cable. And there’s been a lot of hype about the benefits it will have—for some. For example, during an Oct. 20 press conference, Eva Lawler, the Northern Territory minister for renewables and energy, said the project had already resulted in $1.7 million in spending at 70 businesses over the last financial year in Darwin, where Sun Cable is building a solar-panel-manufacturing facility. The Sun Cable project, officially dubbed the Australia-Asia PowerLink (AAPowerLink), she said, “will be a huge boost to the Territory’s economy.”

But those promises and press releases stand in contrast to the vague commitments that locals and activists say have been made to provide jobs and other benefits in remote communities—demonstrating that the company may be more focused on securing buy-in from government officials and getting the project, which they say is in embryonic stages, off the ground, than on the impact it will have at the local level. When asked how she’d like to see major projects like the AAPowerLink benefit remote communities, Lawler said the Sun Cable project is “a very different project to what we are talking about, necessarily, in our remote communities. In our remote communities at this stage, the demands are very small. The Sun Cable project is a huge project. That’s more about—that’s private enterprise, but that’s more about focusing on exporting energy to Asia.”

Norman Frank sits by his fridge where he keeps his medicationAneeta Bhole—SBS

Sun Cable CEO David Griffin said in an Oct. 25 email that the company is committed to comprehensive engagement with Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal stakeholders, that it is working on a benefit plan that will include things like local procurement and workforce training, and that it is collaborating with land councils, which have a statutory responsibility to identify Native Title holders where proposed projects might take place. He said the company will seek to put in place voluntary agreements with impacted Traditional Owners providing “enduring positive outcomes.” “This process takes time to identify, reach and consult with all those Traditional Owners affected by the project and the multiple communities and interest groups involved,” he said.

The Northern Land Council, which represents some Aboriginal groups whose land will be impacted by the project, said in an email that it would “facilitate consultations” about such an agreement, but declined to comment on who from the communities should be approached about proposed projects or what had been done so far. Despite the promise of benefits and engagement, over a dozen people who told TIME and the Special Broadcasting Service in late September they have ancestral connections to land in Powell Creek also said they had not been fully informed about the local benefits of the project.

Read more: There is No Climate Justice Without Racial Justice

It’s symptomatic of a disconnect that environmental groups say demands urgent attention, with several large-scale renewable-energy projects proposed to be built on Aboriginal land in Australia. “We need to think of ways to configure the world differently,” says Kirsty Howey, the co-director of the Environment Centre Northern Territory, “because what we’ve been doing has created and entrenched not just climate change itself, but gross inequalities.”

About 45 sq. mi. of dusty scrubland around Powell Creek Station, an uninhabited block of land that was once a telegraph outpost, have been earmarked for Sun Cable’s solar farm, according to the company’s website. Many of the Traditional Owners of that land live in the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Elliott, an hour-and-a-half drive away.

People here take extreme measures to save on power and adapt to the heat. It’s not uncommon for an entire family to sleep in one room so that only one air-conditioning unit needs to run overnight. Others move their mattresses outside, where it’s cooler at night. It’s standard operation to keep flashlights and camping lanterns around the house to use instead of turning on the lights.

“It’s cooler when you’ve got the lights off … I sit here just under the fan. I’ve got one air-con that I don’t use,” Elizabeth Henderson, a Mudburra woman who lives in the town, said in September, which in Australia is the first month of spring. “I’ve got the windows open, it’s all right.” Outside, there was almost no movement on the streets at midday, as people sheltered from the 97°F heat. Inside, the homes were mostly dark, lit only by the sunlight coming in through open doors and windows.

Elliott is a tight-knit community, and a conversation with one resident about the Sun Cable project quickly turned into a gathering of more than 20, many of whom went between discussing the issue in English and in Jingili and Mudburra, two of several languages spoken in the area. Many were angry that they did not know more about development plans—they had heard about a meeting being held in Elliott, but were unsure about dates or how to attend. Some said they’d heard that Sun Cable had spoken directly to a few locals about the plans and meeting, but those locals had not distributed the information to the rest of the community.

Dan Bostock, 41, says Sun Cable did not give him clear answers about whether the company’s project would help provide electricity to the communityAneeta Bhole—SBS

“We have a past through Powell Creek; it’s our great-grandmothers’ traditional land and now it’s our land,” said Dan Bostock, 41, a Jingili and Mudburra man. “We are the right people to talk to and deserve to know what’s going on and what’s going to be carried on throughout our land.” Bostock says he did attend one meeting about Sun Cable’s planned location, where he asked company representatives what the local benefits would be—he recalls specifically asking whether the project could help provide electricity to the community. He also recalls getting no clear answer.

This sort of discord isn’t inherent in renewable-energy development. Indeed, there are more than 100 medium- to large-scale clean-energy projects operating across Canada that have active Indigenous ownership or co-ownership, and a slew of government policies and programs aimed at helping Indigenous communities access financing. For example, about 1,000 miles north of Vancouver in the shadow of the northern Rocky Mountains, the Fort Nelson First Nation is working to transform an almost depleted natural gas field into a geothermal-energy project. The project is expected to generate up to 15 megawatts of electricity in its initial phase—enough to power about 10,000 homes. Fort Nelson First Nation plans to use excess heat to warm homes in the area and build dozens of greenhouses to grow food during the frigid winter months, when temperatures hover around 0°F. “Major projects are one of the few development opportunities that can bring meaningful change to our communities,” says Sharleen Gale, the chief of the Fort Nelson First Nation. “We think that this geothermal project is really a gift from our ancestors, being able to harness the heat from the earth.”

Read more: How Australia’s Indigenous Experts Could Help Deal With Devastating Wildfires

Across the U.S. border, on the windswept Great Plains, six Native American tribes have formed the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority (OSPA), which is working to bring the first utility-scale wind-power projects to tribal lands. “These are our natural resources, our lands. I think we should have a say over how they’re used,” says Lyle Jack, the chairman of OSPA.

Even elsewhere in Australia—some 2,000 miles from Elliott, on the southwestern coast of the country—another renewable-energy megaproject is putting itself forward as an example of how the green-energy revolution could develop alongside Aboriginal people. The $75 billion Western Green Energy Hub (WGEH) will take up an area larger than Connecticut, on the traditional lands of the Western Australia Mirning People. The Mirning have been given a minority equity stake in WGEH, as well as a permanent seat on the board of the consortium running the project. Its corporate charter also includes promises to create “shared well-being,” not to undertake activities on Mirning land that they don’t agree with, and to recognize and try to fix the “historic and ongoing disadvantage” that Aboriginal people face.

Brendan Hammond, the chairman of the board of the WGEH, says that although there aren’t laws mandating that it partner with the Mirning in this way, he thinks a new playbook is necessary for how project developers engage with local communities. “Legislation is put there as a bare-minimum criteria,” he says. “Our job is to operate not just inside the guardrails, but way, way, way, way, way beyond.”

Some opposition lawmakers are pushing for legislation to enforce greater cooperation in Australia. Independent member of parliament Helen Haines has introduced legislation that would establish an agency to support the development of community-driven renewable-energy projects. It also sets out a requirement for any new large-scale renewable developments to offer 20% of the ownership to local communities. Haines says the plan would ensure that there is “genuine and legitimate consultation with local communities,” but it remains unclear how such communities could afford to put up the funds for that sort of stake in multibillion-dollar projects.

No matter what the law sets out, some businesspeople with experience in mining say it’s simply bad business not to offer wide-ranging benefits to Aboriginal communities when undertaking projects in them. “There’s lots of agreements in place with mining companies which are very transactional, like, you pay us the money and we’ll just look the other way, and ultimately they fail everybody,” says Bruce Harvey, who spent more than 30 years at mining giant Rio Tinto. For example, he points to plans by foreign developers to build a wind park in Oaxaca, Mexico, which triggered protests—and the suspension of the project—from Indigenous communities claiming that adequate consultation had not occurred. And on the flip side, he notes how when the company OZ Minerals wanted to develop a copper mine in South Australia, the firm created a comprehensive partnership agreement with the Kokatha People living on the land, and the two groups now work together on a wide range of issues.

Harvey says renewable-energy projects, which may be in operation for decades, have a special responsibility to build better ties with local communities—to ensure that sustainability is defined by respect not just for the land but also for its historic stewards. “Presuming that you’ve got a green halo because you’re in a renewable-energy business doesn’t mean you automatically will be doing everything that’s acceptable and right by local people,” he says. “If you’re paying homage to a global concern, very frequently you’re riding roughshod over local concerns.” —With reporting by Eloise Barry/London

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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com