I’m Indigenous Australian, and I Work for a Mining Company

For Over 20 Years, I’ve Been Trying to Change an Industry That Has Excluded, Displaced, and Exploited Native People

I’m Indigenous Australian, and I Work for a Mining Company | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

When Adam Lees took a job in mining, people in his Indigenous community in Australia thought he was either “brave or naïve.” But “Indigenous peoples must sit at the decision-making tables within corporations,” he argues. Aerial view of a mine near Mount Isa by denisbin (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Being in mining was never part of my plan. As a young boy, I dreamed of becoming a priest with a pilot’s license, living and working in remote Australian communities. I got an advertising degree, joined the foreign service, and spent five years working for the government, including three years as a junior diplomat in Samoa. But I never really fit in. I resigned from the foreign service in January 1999, when I was 27, and returned to my hometown, the remote and dusty mining town of Mount Isa in outback Australia.

There, instead of attending cocktail parties and rubbing shoulders with prime ministers and ambassadors, I mowed lawns, raked leaves, and did landscape work. About 10 months into my career break, my older sister Cassie handed me a newspaper advertisement for a “Senior Advisor, Indigenous Affairs” position at Mount Isa Mines, one of Australia’s oldest and most profitable copper, lead, zinc, and silver mines. MIM, as it’s known, wanted to hire an Indigenous Australian who grew up in the local community and understood its issues and challenges—someone like me. I didn’t expect to get the job, but I did.

Today, more than 20 years later, I am one of just a few Indigenous senior leaders working in the Australian mining industry. As the Chief Advisor for Indigenous Affairs for Australia at the Anglo-Australian metals and mining corporation Rio Tinto, I help our executive leadership team and board of directors improve our relationships with, and outcomes for, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, employees, and communities.

People like me are go-betweens, walking in two worlds. We are translators for companies and communities. We help them understand each other to achieve mutual benefits.

There are many complexities and challenges. Mining, a symbol of industrial progress and wealth creation, has unfortunately also left a legacy of exclusion, displacement, and exploitation of Indigenous peoples worldwide. In Australia, where the main exports are iron ore, coal, gas, and gold, the industry has spent decades disregarding and excluding the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who are Indigenous to the nation’s lands and waters.

Back when I took my first industry job, at MIM, many in my community thought I was either brave or naïve. But I believe Indigenous peoples must sit at the decision-making tables within corporations, not as passive stakeholders but as active influencers. We can actively secure redress for past misdeeds and lead an approach within the industry that will respect cultural heritage, drive economic benefit, and achieve environmental integrity.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tribes were the first sovereign nations of the Australian continent and its adjacent islands and possessed the land under our own laws and customs. Science suggests that we’ve been here for at least 65,000 years; the British colonized Australia less than 250 years ago. Over time they took our lands from us, and wrote laws that made it hard for us to fight back.

Indigenous people were powerless observers. In the 1950s to 1970s, mining companies discovered iron, coal, uranium, and industrial minerals such as bauxite, copper, lead and zinc in many places. Indigenous people rarely had any say, or ability to intervene, when commonwealth, state, and territory governments granted companies mining leases. Outsiders oversaw the destruction of our sacred sites, without recompense.

I believe Indigenous peoples must sit at the decision-making tables within corporations, not as passive stakeholders but as active influencers.

That includes near Mount Isa, my hometown. When I stepped into my role at MIM in 2000, the Kalkadoon Traditional Owners of the region had no stake in, and received no economic benefit from, mining operations. Open-pit mines had left large, gaping craters in their ancestral land. The Traditional Owners had no formal engagement with the mine, no dedicated Indigenous employment programs, and no social investment initiatives. They were organizing a native title claim aimed at legally recognizing and securing the Kalkadoon people’s historical rights to their ancestral lands and seeking a more inclusive approach to land and resource management for the future.

Leadership at MIM recognized that it was time to develop a better relationship. That’s where I came in.

Understandably, people expressed a lot of frustration in the initial meetings between the company and the Indigenous community. I felt about as welcome as a roast turkey at a vegetarian dinner party. I was verbally abused, physically intimidated, and called all sorts of names (nicer ones included “company man” and “sell-out”)—by people who were almost like family to me.

Over time, I built connections and trust. Soon after I started at MIM, I went to my boss, the mine site’s executive general manager, and convinced him to provide office space for the Traditional Owners to organize their title claim and conduct meetings. It was a small thing, but it signalled goodwill. Kalkadoon leaders still use the space today, as the registered office for their Native Title corporation.

This was an important lesson: A simple gesture of respect goes a long way—often much further than years of legal negotiations or purely transactional interactions. In September 2001, the Kalkadoon people, the Queensland Government, and MIM, among other mining companies, negotiated an Indigenous Land Use Agreement that paved the way for roughly 90 exploration licenses in the vicinity of Mount Isa. And that was only the start of what has become an enduring relationship between MIM and the Kalkadoon people.

I believe we are entering a new era of recognition for Indigenous people’s rights. The looming fight against climate change compels companies to listen to us. It’s often stated that Indigenous peoples represent about 5% of the world population but hold 80% of the remaining natural resources and biodiversity, including critical minerals. What will be the role of Indigenous people in the “just transition” to a low-carbon future—and is a green future that depends on more mining even possible?

Indigenous people still struggle. Our life expectancy is about 20 years less than non-Indigenous Australians, and I have seen many family and community members die early from preventable diseases. Proportionately, we are the most incarcerated people on earth. Our languages are disappearing, and colonization has eroded our cultural practices.

Still, I’d like to think we’re in a better place overall than when I started in this industry. Indigenous communities have more equal say, and greater control, than ever before—and the fact that more Indigenous people are coming up through the ranks and taking our rightful place in seats at corporate tables across the country has a lot to do with it. My hope is that the economic and social position of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in Australia, too, will rise.


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