Gumatj – enterprise and jobs for economic independence in Arnhem Land

Background

Mining is a large part of the Northern Territory economy, historically led by blue-chip mining companies with little employment or participation by local Indigenous people. In North East Arnhem Land, a region shaped by Yolŋu people for more than 40,000 years, the local community opposed the first bauxite mine’s establishment in 1963 with their famous Yirrkala Bark Petitions, instrumental to the national land rights movement. Yet in 1968 the Gove Agreement was negotiated between the Commonwealth Government and mining company Nabalco (North Australian Bauxite and Alumina Company).

Today, Yolŋu people seek to participate fairly in the economic development this industry promises, and are determined to make mining part of their future. As Galarrwuy Yunupingu, Leader of the Gumatj clan and Chairman of the Gumatj Corporation, states, “We are determined to be a part of the economic life of this nation and to use our assets for the betterment of our people’s lives”.

Rio Tinto took over the original Nabalco mine (later renamed Alcan Gove) in 2007, and in 2011 the Rio Tinto Alcan Gove Traditional Owners Agreement was signed. Based on this, Gumatj Corporation has worked to invest mining royalties into small business enterprises, ushering in economic development for the region.

CEO of Gumatj Corporation, Klaus Helms, spoke of the improvements the Agreement facilitated: “We’ve built a small school, we’ve got timber works, we’ve got cattle farms, we’ve got abattoirs, we’ve got fishing units, we’ve got people employed in the Gumatj Corporation. And we’ve got more in the works: we’ve got a shop that will be opening up and we’re going to have a meat works. It is a thriving community.”

In June 2013, the Gumatj Corporation took their enterprises to a new level. With the support of the Northern Land Council, they and Rio Tinto Gove Operations signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to complete a feasibility study for bauxite mining at the Dhupuma Plateau. Gulkula Mine, Australia’s first ever Indigenous owned and operated bauxite mine, was born.

With Rio Tinto announcing later that year that it would cease its mining operations in Nhulunbuy (Gove) by 2022, Gumatj Corporation were perfectly placed to get plans moving for the Gulkula Mine and an accompanying Training Centre. On establishing the business, Klaus noted, “The commencement of a 100 per cent Indigenous-owned training centre and mining operation is testament to what Indigenous people can achieve working in partnership with business and government”, calling this “a major step forward in building a sustainable future for our local people”.

Jawun was one of those early partnerships. Since 2013, 11 Jawun secondees have supported both the Mine and Training Centre to become formally established and operational. 

Approach

Four months after the MoU was signed and before the site had been established, Jawun secondee Vivien Perri, from Wesfarmers, was assigned a project to work on a Mining Regional Impact Study. She worked hard to establish feasibility and explore different scenarios. According to Klaus this set a strong foundation: “By projecting ideas and operational scenarios that were workable, in a very short amount time, she showed us what could be done. It did not have an immediate impact, but it will be very significant.”

As well as focusing on mining as an economic opportunity, Gumatj Corporation wanted to support Yolŋu employment in it. As operator of several local businesses and employer of 65 Yolŋu employees, the Corporation began to look at ways to effectively support Yolŋu’s people’s training and employment pathways.

At the 2014 Garma Festival, it was announced that the Gulkula Regional Training Centre would be constructed with a $2.4 million grant from Rio Tinto. “Our aim is to create a sustainable, Indigenous-owned business that will deliver long-term economic benefits for the Yolŋu people,” Gumatj Deputy Chairman, Djawa Yunupingu said, adding, “This training centre will help Yolŋu develop the skills to work in mines across the Northern Territory, through on-the-job training within Gumatj mining operations. It will be available to Aboriginal people throughout the Northern Territory who wish to learn skills in the mining industry”.

In 2016, prior to construction of the Training Centre, several Jawun secondees worked with Gumatj Corporation on projects dedicated to the business strategy and operation of the Centre. This included the development and implementation of a business plan, HR recruitment and policies, and financial infrastructure. “The analytical skills helped our way of thinking in making this project a feasible proposition rather than an optimistic candle”, Gumatj Corporation and Training Centre General Manager Allan Rungan said of these early secondments.

The success of the Mine and Training Centre rests on their local and cultural relevance. Responding to the socioeconomic and infrastructure challenges of North East Arnhem Land that impact employment, they have developed holistic support for trainees and staff including:

  • Free accommodation to ensure staff get a good rest after work;
  • Free transportation to and from work during the week;
  • Subsidised food options to ensure staff get a nutritious breakfast and lunch;
  • Free pre-employment medical and dental checks to ensure staff get appropriate treatment.

Outcomes

At the 2017 Garma Festival, where the MoU was signed just 4 years earlier, two significant events occurred that would change the future of the Gumatj Corporation and Yolŋu people of North East Arnhem Land, and instil hope for Indigenous Communities around Australia. The first was Gumatj Corporation and Rio Tinto Alcan signing a term sheet on bauxite sales for the Mine project. This would see Rio Tinto Alcan purchase bauxite mined by Gulkula Mine to be crushed and shipped for distribution. The second was the official opening of the Gulkula Regional Training Centre.

Within a month of the Garma Festival, mining had commenced. By November 2017, the first batch of bauxite was ready for shipment and by December 2017, the first 10 Yolŋu participants graduated from the Training Centre. Klaus spoke of the ceremony held for the graduates as, “a special day for Yolŋu people as a significant step forward has been achieved in building a sustainable future for our local communities. The trainees have not only undergone job readiness training but have already secured jobs at our Gulkula mine, Rio Tinto’s Gove bauxite mine and other local businesses.”

From 2013 to its establishment in 2017, skilled Jawun secondees supported the Gulkula Mine’s core functions including HR, finance and risk.  Mine Manager, Ken Kahler, reflects on Jawun’s involvement over the 5 years: “The Jawun program has assisted Gulkula to develop the necessary systems and procedures required to establish this operation. The Jawun secondees who contributed to the development of Gulkula have used their high level of competency and mainstream business experience to provide solutions that support the unique challenges this remote indigenous organisation faces. Their energy and enthusiasm to contribute in a meaningful way ensures project briefs have been delivered with innovation and consideration to the Indigenous people we are working to empower.”

To date 30 Yolŋu participants have been enrolled at the Training Centre. Of these, 20 Yolŋu people have graduated from the program and have been gainfully employed in organisations across Arnhem Land, with 10 employed full time at the Mine. Currently Yolŋu employees make up 63% of the Mine’s staff; a testament to the Mine’s commitment to Yolŋu empowerment.

Further, the Mine has successfully distributed its first bauxite ore to both national and international clients in its first year of operation. This is a result of the commitment and innovation of Yolŋu leaders and Gumatj Corporation who are now looking to expand the Mine’s capabilities and service offerings. 

On the 10th October 2018, the Mine took a step towards this by securing the contract to transport bauxite from the Gulkula Mine to Rio Tinto. This is another achievement against their strategy of consolidating internal mining operations, and opens another door for Yolŋu training and employment. This was a prominent focus in their 5-year Strategic Plan, supported in its preparation by CBA secondee Jackson Davey in consultation with Mine Manager Ken Kahler. When asked about the impact of his project, Jackson reflected, “I’d like to think that what I’ve done may help the mine to keep focusing on achieving its big goals while still being able to manage day to day operations, to utilise values-based dialogue to help have more consistent conversations with Yolŋu, and to prioritise future opportunities in a quick, simple and consistent manner”.


Next Steps

A holistic work readiness program has been established and will be delivered in 2019 to a new intake of Yolngu employees of the Gulkula Mine, with support expected from future Jawun secondees.