In the immense expanse of the Australian Central Western Desert that engulfs Newmont Mining Corp.’s Jundee complex in the Yandal goldfield 1,100 km northeast of Perth, water, food and people are often equally scarce.

In a good year, the dry, unicolor land will absorb 200 milliliters of rainfall. The native Martu people, however, have long since adapted: with one of the world’s oldest living cultures—dating back 40,000 years—the aboriginals are exceptional at spotting, tracking and catching elusive goanna lizards and bush turkeys—both on foot and by setting fires.

1 Wiluna Martu Ranger
Pictured are members of the Martu Rangers, a land management group of native aboriginals supported by Newmont Mining Corp in the Australian desert.

Such skills have not gone unnoticed. Through Australia’s Central Desert Native Title Services (CDNTS), Newmont is now tapping it for a landmark Martu Ranger land management program. It’s an endeavor exemplifying mining-sector Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) at its best: While generating indigenous employment, the initiative provides for the environment alongside a cultural awareness eagerly promoted by a government.

In wake of a 2011 pilot program, a fee-for-service compliance contract has since evolved into a large-scale biodiversity restoration project that is drawing new partner interest, while increasing Martu employment levels three-fold.

The story began three years earlier, when national and regional governments, agencies including the CDNTS and the Martu and mining companies, including Newmont, formed a Wiluna Regional Partnership Agreement for socio-economic development. But engagement, geared toward bringing indigenous people into traditional employment at Jundee faltered, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the start.

Guy Singleton, senior community relations advisor at Newmont, noted that while “a small percentage of Martu were happy fulfilling mainstream mining roles, for the majority of others, it did not deliver what they were seeking from an employment arrangement.”

The reasons were simple. CDNTS Land and Community Operations Manager Lindsey Langford said long-held Martu traditions are deeply at odds with normal work schedules at any conventional mine project. “You can’t argue with this,” he said. “It’s part of their life.”

Langford points to tradition-heavy Martu funerals as a prime example. On a set date, up to 500 people, all connected through kinship, can gather from across hundreds of miles for a burial ceremony in tandem with strict customs. “You can imagine the logistical effort,” he said.

Years of separation, on the other hand, can punctuate warm reunions or grudge-driven violence—or both. In any case, “a funeral can last one day—and it can last days,” Langford added. “Reburials” follow three months on which—as with all Martu tenets—are shrouded in a balanced, dream-like continuum.

Nonetheless, Newmont remained keen on leaving the open cast asset with two underground mines, and the land around it, better off than when it purchased them in 1995. Altogether, the Colorado-based major and its partners have recruited more than a dozen rangers to manage the two million hectares of land surrounding the mine for 191 days.

It’s no easy job, but the Martu know their turf. Home to three interim bio-regions and seven known species threatened under the Environment Protection and Diversity Conservation Act of 1999, most notably, their effort is critical to the area.

Synergy between the rangers and company expertise has been particularly important, said Singleton. “To ensure resilience, we wanted to make sure it touched the company’s core business through focus on environmental compliance,” he noted. “Australia’s indigenous people have 40,000 years of land management experience, so we wanted to tap into that.”

One breakthrough took place in mid-2012 when a monitoring program for threatened species detected a Brush-tail Mulgara population at Jundee. With ranger instruction, two motion cameras were installed leading to a first sighting in a decade; GPS coordinates were in turn documented and indexed in a database.

Knowledge sharing is intense—and first-hand. Rangers routinely camp out overnight with Newmont staff allowing them a better feel for their environs over traditional dinners, which include cooked kangaroo venison. “Often at a mine site you only get a young environmental scientist to test water,” said Langford. “This is a much more holistic version.”

To this end, the rangers are helping develop an environmental management plan for rehabilitation and erosion control through their natural strength and understanding of the land; they take their lead from a Newmont environmental systems expert.

Biodiversity monitoring, meanwhile, utilizes technology complementing the Martu’s adroit physicality and powerful eyesight conditioned over a lifetime of stalking fauna by foot. Rangers further cooperate with Newmont’s environment team for recycling and waste management.

A nationally renowned Western Desert Fire project similarly fuses Martu understanding of fire use in the barren landscape with modern fire management techniques. Weed eradication, too, is addressed via the government’s Department of Conservation, as is killing wild animals which prey on endangered species.

Initially, a 2013 report by UN Global Compact Network Australia, part of a worldwide strategy promoting business sustainability, said the program’s biggest challenge was including a greater scope of Martu people, given age and fitness restrictions for the immediate mine site. Following a second, broader, land lease initiative, however, “the program is now inclusive of women who can bring their children with them,” added the survey, co-produced by the Minerals Council of Australia.             

Aboriginal relations, fraught by an enduring legacy of colonial history and institutionalized racism, remain a sore spot in Australia’s historical narrative. Indeed, despite a storied heritage, comprising less than 3% of the populace, their voices have long been silent ones—with tragic consequences.     

In the last decade, for example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported life expectancy for aboriginal men at 11.5 years less than the non-indigenous population; that of females was 9.7 years less. Infant mortality rates, alarmingly, were three times worse than non-indigenous Australians; unemployment stood at 52%.

From their first contact with British settlers, aboriginals suffered dearly through violence and marginalization; nothing improved after Australian self-rule in 1901. One prominent example was the construction of a 1,850-km rail line by shackled Martu to accommodate an early post-independence mining boom; the route is now popular for all-terrain vehicles.

Indeed, much work remains. But government support, alliances of frameworks like CDNTS and businesses like Newmont are turning the tide, according to Alice Cope, the executive manager representing the UN Global Compact Network in Australia.

“It really brings the environmental and social aspects together,” said Cope, who co-authored last year’s report. “It was a great example—we’re keen to see companies engaging positively.”

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