Indigenous rights and Argyle diamonds: good intentions, bad policy and the burden of history

By Stuart Kells

May 11, 2021

(Image: Adobe/Tetiana)

The world-famous Argyle diamond mine, in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, was the dividend from a painstaking search for tiny mineral clues. Led by geologist Ewen Tyler, the search scrutinised 190,000 square kilometres of country, an area almost as large as Great Britain. In 1972, the searchers found their first diamond. It was small – only 0.008 of a carat – and it had been collected on a reserve owned by Indigenous Australians.

This was an era in which the lives of Indigenous people were changing rapidly. There was a renaissance in Indigenous art and culture. Roads, planes and powerboats connected otherwise distant and divided communities. People suddenly knew a lot more about what others were doing, and what battles they were winning and losing, even in remote parts of the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys.

There was growing contact with European outsiders, whom the local people called kartiya or kardiya. The outsiders came seeking knowledge, adventure, wealth and other more personal prizes. Some of what the visitors sought was compatible with the aspirations and culture of the local people. Much of it wasn’t.

A resurgence in Indigenous land ownership was another striking trend. Through a combination of land grants and purchases, and by reoccupying vacant traditional lands, Indigenous people re-established themselves on their own country.

In the early 1970s, there was a growing acknowledgement of past crimes and the rights of Indigenous people. But legally, politically and administratively, Indigenous affairs were a mess. In WA there was a confusion of public agencies, including the federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the West Australian Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority (AAPA), which had replaced the Native Welfare Department.

Policy frameworks were ill-developed. Laws and programs were crudely conceived and they pushed in inconsistent directions. In the fight for fair treatment and the recognition of Indigenous land ownership, there were at least as many opponents as supporters.

In 1973, as part of the Indigenous land renaissance, Robert Roberts led the return of fifty people to the Forrest River mission and their surrounding ancestral land, which they named Oombulgurri. The initiative enjoyed strong community support and the population at the reserve quickly grew.

Roberts’ motives were powerful. He and his wife had grown up on the Anglican mission. When the mission closed, most of his people had moved south-east to the coastal town of Wyndham. There, the perils of urban living had taken a terrible toll on many of his friends and peers. Something had to be done. Returning to Oombulgurri promised his people a better future.

Discussions with the AAPA made it possible for Ewen Tyler to go to Oombulgurri, meet with elders and other leaders, and negotiate further access for the diamond searchers.

When Tyler arrived at the old Forrest River mission, he was confronted by a busy scene. The reserve was home not only to Indigenous people but also to members of the Ecumenical Institute, a group from ‘the slums of Chicago’ whose affiliates had established themselves as ‘white advisers’.

One morning at the reserve, Tyler overheard an American voice advising Indigenous women on the mass production of didgeridoos, and how the women might obtain a monopoly on ochre for the instruments’ decoration. He was struck by the stark disparity between what the advisers offered and what the Indigenous people might want and need.

In the middle of this clash between old and new, local and foreign, Robert Roberts saw the world through clear eyes. ‘You whites must think we are mad,’ he told Tyler. ‘Why would a sane person hunt kangaroo with a boomerang if he could use a rifle?’

Roberts was rightly sceptical of the motives of outsiders who were ‘here to help’. But he sat down with Tyler and lawyer John Toohey to work out a possible access arrangement. Toohey was a respected lawyer in the West Australian Aboriginal Legal Service (and a future High Court judge). A strong advocate for Indigenous rights, he acted as counsel for the Oombulgurri community.

Tyler felt he developed a good rapport with Roberts, though less so with Toohey. ‘Toohey believed Oombulgurri lands should be left free of disturbance and exploration for 25 years, to allow the people time to adjust.’ But Roberts and the Oombulgurri council of elders disagreed. For a $25,000 payment, they granted access for the 1974 field season.

Later that year, it became clear to Tyler that the diamond searchers needed a longer-term arrangement with the Oombulgurri Association. He flew to Wyndham and made a second visit to the reserve, meeting again with Roberts and Toohey.

At this meeting, Tyler made a proposal that was unprecedented in Australian mining: a joint venture agreement that would assure the Oombulgurri Association a stake in any future mining activity on the reserve. The agreement was a major step but it was doomed from the start, as Tyler later recalled.

‘Such an arrangement appealed to the Commonwealth Department of Aboriginal Affairs and to the local Aboriginal Affairs Planning Authority, but it was frowned upon by the state government. Negotiations proceeded amicably over several years…but it became abundantly clear we were offending the government.’

Premier Charles Court himself vehemently opposed the idea, as did some leading miners, who feared it could imply Indigenous people had a legal and economic interest in mineral resources, which of course they did.

Ewen Tyler and his colleagues ultimately discovered the Argyle diamond deposit hundreds of kilometres away from the Oombulgurri community. But the deposit was still very much on Indigenous land, and the same issues of fairness, rights and compensation arose there.

Just as Robert Roberts had done at Oombugurri, John Toby had led members of his community back to traditional lands. Early in 1980, they took possession of the Mandangala outstation on the Glen Hill pastoral lease.

In the country around Glen Hill, there were sites specifically sacred to men and to women. A network of Dreaming tracks crisscrossed the land. Having repopulated Glen Hill, Toby was now the principal custodian of the sacred sites and Dreaming tracks around the Argyle diamond deposit. Within the diamond searchers’ claim area, there were three sites of high cultural significance, including the ‘Barramundi Dreaming’ site, which was sacred in particular to Kija and Miriwung women.

The local people first learnt of the miners’ interest in the district when they saw that long trenches had been dug. These works were part of the testing of the volcanic pipe and nearby alluvial deposits. To the Indigenous people, these preliminary works looked like a lot of activity. The disruption was far from trivial, and in some places it was very significant. But it was tiny in comparison to what might be coming.

Few people in Australia had any experience of what an opencut diamond mine might entail. If the mine development got fully underway, the miners would move millions of tonnes of ore. They would blow it up, dig it out, break it apart and spread it out as vast piles of tailings. An enormous mechanical processing plant would rise like an alien megastructure in the East Kimberley savannah.

John Toby was inclined to oppose the diamond finders’ plans, but there was little he could do to stop them. So he decided to talk to kartiya. The discussions grappled with wicked questions: not just about the scale of compensation, but the extent of future mining activity, and how the significant sites would be protected.

Following a path first established at Oombulgurri, the diamond searchers sought to establish a long-term arrangement with the Indigenous people of the East Kimberley. At a major gathering at Glen Hill, 24 people from the Mandangala community met with representatives of the searchers to negotiate an access agreement.

This and subsequent discussions led to the finalisation of a ‘Good Neighbour Policy’ that included commitments on the scope and impact of mining activity, ongoing Indigenous consultation, local employment, and a program of social investment and capital works.

The construction of a primary school was especially important to John Toby. Like Robert Roberts, he was happy to take the best from modern and traditional technologies and ways of life. Having had no opportunity to go to school beyond Grade 2, he saw the value of education for the next generations.

Some local people welcomed aspects of the Argyle agreement and the Good Neighbour Policy. Some even saw the prospect of a mine itself as a positive development. The agreement and the policy were direct sources of income and investment and, more importantly, explicit acknowledgements of Indigenous rights – to the Argyle land, and to a share in the fruits of the mine.

But the agreement sparked a major controversy in the East Kimberley. John Toby was criticised for having been too ready to strike a deal. There were disputes, too, about who should have signed the agreement, and who should benefit from it. Toby was not perceived to have fulfilled his duty to the wider community.

Most funding under the agreement was tied to capital works at Glen Hill. There was little room or flexibility for other payments, or for an explicit Indigenous voice in decisions about how the money was to be spent. This made it impossible for Toby to fulfil his obligations to other people who had traditional rights to share in the rewards from the mine.

The controversy over the agreement and the policy highlighted the inadequacy of governmental and judicial arrangements for Indigenous rights. It also exposed the political and riven nature of Indigenous affairs. There were gulfs between families and communities, and between different representative bodies and official agencies that sought to orchestrate Indigenous matters.

John Toby said many of the reactions to the agreement and policy were unfair. ‘I don’t know why [people] were angry,’ he said. ‘After telling me to go ahead, they got angry at me.’ Something had to give. Late in 1980 and early in 1981, he met with people from the surrounding communities with a view to remaking the agreement and the policy so they better reflected traditional obligations.

In July 1981, the Argyle partners extended the scope and financial terms of the Good Neighbour Policy by creating a ‘Good Neighbour Program’. Despite this resolution, some people felt they’d been misled about the level and use of the available funds and the protection of sacred and traditional sites. The feeling of having been tricked just added to the sense of loss inflicted by the physical disruption at the Argyle site.

Over the life of the mine, the miners reached new agreements with the Traditional Owners. They broke new ground in Indigenous employment, participation and representation. But all these steps took place upon an imbalance of power and a deep foundation of violent, government-sponsored dispossession. For Indigenous people, the steps posed a terrible trade-off – between permanent cultural costs and transitory economic benefits. Journalist and broadcaster Philip Adams called those benefits ‘a pitiful barter…for perhaps the richest piece of real estate on earth’.


The making of a diamond mine

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