Aboriginal business owner Derek Flucker highlights how Traditional Owners, First Nations companies and the resource sector working together will protect Indigenous culture. This will secure a meaningful future for First Nations people and prevent the destruction of the world’s oldest living culture, so events like the eradication of Juukan Gorge are never repeated.

For more than 30 years, Derek Flucker has been involved in the mining industry, witnessing first-hand the change and growth in the way that the mining sector and First Nations communities interact and work with each other.

As the Managing Director of two companies – RBY Projects and Manaji Projects – Mr Flucker has been long involved in the industry, as a business development specialist, General Manager and Managing Director, so he has a broad perspective on the industry and First Nations communities.

Derek Flucker

“RBY Projects does civil construction, maintenance and rehabilitation activities where Coal Seam Gas activities occur,” Mr Flucker said. “We’ll go in, undertake the civil works during the construction phase and undertake the rehab once the construction is finished.

“Manaji Projects does the cultural heritage clearance work. So, where activities are happening on Country, the Traditional Owners go in and make sure that their cultural areas are not being disturbed. And if they are, they come up with plans and ways to manage these areas or cultural objects. This model ensures the two parties walk together through the process when development occurs on their land.

“Having Indigenous businesses in the sector, such as mine, has been really important in terms of ensuring Traditional Owners feel comfortable, supported and are in a safe space when they do their work on Country. Traditionally, the engagement with Traditional Owners has occurred via the big resource sector companies and for Traditional Owners this is a conflict of interest.

“The resource sector’s main interest is extracting the resources from the ground. Finding a balance between Traditional Owner interests and resource extraction is difficult to achieve.”

Mr Flucker said having First Nations people working out in the field also provided a ‘good story’ to the wider public that challenged the stereotype of Aboriginal people as welfare recipients.

“This is great for our community to have role models out there working and protecting Country and feeding their families.”

Giving back to the local community is a priority for Mr Flucker and is a key driver of the work his companies do – the people they employ, the services they provide and the investment the companies have in those communities.

Bringing Aboriginal businesses together

When Mr Flucker started his first joint venture Aboriginalowned business some 25 years ago, it struck him that there were very few Aboriginal businesses in the resource sector and in business generally.

“It was quite lonely in the space as I didn’t grow up with wealth or having role models that went into business.”

In 2005, Aboriginal Enterprises in Mining, Energy and Exploration (AEMEE) was established with a focus on gaining a true market share for Indigenous businesses within the resource sector and developing and connecting First Nations businesses with real opportunities.

“AEMEE came along; it was developed to help bring people together, help guide policy and help guide the government in making decisions around mining projects. You’ve got a lot of communities that are sitting on the back door of these projects, and a lot of the work was bypassing the local people. Many of these communities were living in third world conditions, with little to no employment opportunities and relying on government money to survive. AEMEE went about changing the sector to ensure this work was getting distributed to First Nations people.”

(L-R) Brolga Cranes’ Managing Director, Paul Olsen, GaWun Supplies’ Managing Director, Michael Grundon, WRL Shipping’s Managing Director, Kira Seeley, Ternary Group’s Managing Director, Joel Blanco and AEMEE CEO, Jyi Lawton, speaking at the AEMEE Annual Conference. Image credit: Mod Films & Photos.

As well as giving a voice to the First Nations community, it served to bring people already involved in the mining industry together.

“It gave me and other Aboriginal businesses a family that were doing a similar thing, so we felt connected; we felt as though we were part of something that was quite important for our communities.”

Mr Flucker currently serves as a Chairperson for AEMEE and has fulfilled this role since 2010 – he understands the significant role the enterprise has played in First Nations engagement in the resources sector, and the continued role it will play in the years to come.

“As it is today, the mining sector is the biggest economic driver for Aboriginal people in Australia, so it’s been great to be part of AEMEE,” he said.

Reviving the conversation

Since its inception in 2005, AEMEE has strived to bring members together and address key issues at inclusive and informative events and conferences, including the Annual AEMEE Conference.

Although COVID-19 put a pause on in-person events for a few years, the Annual AEMEE conference was held in Cairns for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic in September 2023. Mr Flucker said that the feel and energy in the room was the best he’s seen for a very long time.

“We had a lot of new players from various sectors there and a lot of new businesses. We had a number of the big mining companies attend but we had mostly Indigenous businesses – it was great to hear their stories and the positivity that they’re providing for their communities and their families.

“For us, it was just a real energy boost for our community that work in the industry, and it was great to see them all there.”

One of the key points in the conference agenda was bringing Traditional Owners and mining companies together to discuss the ways to protect Aboriginal heritage sites going forward, including getting Traditional Owners from Juukan Gorge and Rio Tinto together to present on the topic.

“I understand it was the first public forum where the Traditional Owners for Juukan Gorge were able to speak on the matter and we really enjoyed having them there and getting their insights on how they see the future for their people. They have started some great initiatives with Rio and I believe the conference attendees learnt a lot from their experiences,” Mr Flucker said.

“It was really good to hear both sides of the story including how both parties were able to move forward from the situation to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

He said Rio Tinto had drawn on the support of AEMEE to help with their engagement with Aboriginal businesses. “During the process, Rio Tinto was taking a holistic approach.

They weren’t just looking at the cultural heritage incident, they were looking at how they can do better with Indigenous groups generally from economic, social and cultural perspectives.”

Key stakeholder engagement: from the beginning

The conference focused on brainstorming how to protect cultural heritage and ways to prevent something like Juukan Gorge from happening again.

“Major items on discussion were about early consultation, early involvement, getting consent, and where there are mistakes, owning up to them. Where mistakes occur it’s about both parties developing joint improvement plans for the future and making each other accountable to agreements and change.

“That was a pretty key message throughout the whole thing.”

Another clear message that emerged from the conference was the importance of giving Traditional Owners engagement in all aspects of the mine, not just the cultural heritage engagement.

This engagement needed to be at the planning phases of the mine and building in economic, social, and cultural programs to be delivered at all stages.

“We see it too often that First Nation people are engaged too late in the process, or they are only engaged on certain aspects of the project,” Mr Flucker said.

He said discussions that occurred at the conference helped to show that if companies involve Indigenous people early and on more than just cultural heritage, there was a better relationship between parties for the duration of the project.

“There are some major social issues happening in communities including high suicide rates, negative health statistics and major deficiencies in education. Aboriginal people want to be at the forefront to improve these areas. Resource projects provide the potential income and jobs to improve the negative statistics in these communities.”

Australian Training Works Group’s General Manager, Daijah Martens, with Derek Flucker. Image credit: Mod Films & Photos.

Legislation backing it up

Those striving for better outcomes and better engagement have found themselves at the mercy of legislation and government bodies. To avoid a repeat of Juukan Gorge, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act was introduced in 2023, but in August, Western Australian Premier Roger Cook repealed the laws and restored the 1972 legislation.

Mr Flucker said that in this situation “we’ve taken a number of steps forward, and then we’ve taken a number of steps back”.

“From an AEMEE point of view it’s unacceptable to see this legislation reverted to the archaic legislation of the past. We’re one of the players that are working with the government and the mining companies to make sure we have better legislation, to make sure these things don’t occur. And if we go back to what was happening in ‘72, we’re going to get repeats of what has already occurred, which has been a major issue for the Aboriginal community, Australia and its reputation internationally.

“The government needs to change their paradigm and put the shoe on the other foot. If they introduced legislation which could potentially lead to the destruction of English churches or sites important to the colonial history of Australia there would be major public backlash, but this legislation has been treated very differently,” Mr Flucker said.

Striving for a successful future

Mr Flucker is optimistic about the future and what effective communication and engagement between Traditional Owners and mining companies could look like. The three keys are respecting each other, seeing each other as partners to developing land and working together to achieve each other’s goals.

“We need to ensure that we can still have a strong mining industry, but we need to make sure that both the mining and the Indigenous sector can work together.

“This sector has grown significantly from twenty-five years ago when I started. We’ve made mistakes. The mining companies made mistakes and Indigenous groups made mistakes, but to see this sector grow for Indigenous groups and the economic impact that it’s having on Indigenous Australia, we want to ensure that continues.

“But we also want to make sure that our culture and heritage is protected, and we all learn from situations where our culture and heritage has been adversely affected.

“25 years ago, we had less than a handful of Aboriginal businesses in the sector and now we have thousands of businesses in the sector being the biggest economic driver for First Nations people.

“Over the past three years Rio, BHP and Fortescue have had major spending increases in terms of contracts being given to Aboriginal businesses, some doubling their spend. This is not a handout mentality, as the mining industry now relies on the First Nations businesses to be successful as without them many projects would be at risk. We now have Aboriginal businesses running and managing their own mines which was unthinkable ten years ago.

“In terms of AEMEE, well, it’s an exciting time ahead for the future. We have just appointed our inaugural CEO to lead out a range of activities, events, and projects to further build on and strengthen our presence and role within the sector. This will mean cultivating new opportunities, strengthening partnerships, and establishing pathways within the industry to benefit Indigenous businesses, ensuring our collective growth and success in the future.”

The mining industry continues to be one of the driving forces for the nation’s successful economy and Mr Flucker said that mining companies and Indigenous groups need to work together to help the Australian resources sector meet increasing mineral and resources demand in Australia and across the world. First Nations people want to be partners in the economic future of Australia on the national and world stage but they also want to ensure the economic future of their own families and communities.

“First Nations people also have obligations to their lores and culture which have to be respected and the drive for a successful resource sector cannot be done at the detriment of lore and culture. This is achievable and has been achieved in the majority of projects across Australia and I am confident the sector will continue to prosper where everybody can achieve their desired goals.”

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