Two men stand smiling on a red dirt track. One is in a green shirt and akubra, the other is in a black BHP polo shirt.

Going beyond native title

Allan James, a Wongi-Martu-Yamatji man and Head of Indigenous Engagement Minerals Australia1, has a unique perspective when it comes to building mutually beneficial relationships between Traditional Owners and resources companies like BHP.

Having been on both sides of the table during his 20-year career, Allan is as passionate today about recognising Indigenous people, respecting heritage and elevating community voices as he was when he first started out in mining in 2001.

From his perspective, the principles of any healthy relationship – namely a commitment to trust and transparency – apply equally in this context, complemented by collaborative efforts to create social value through economic opportunities and career pathways for Indigenous people.

“When we engage with Traditional Owners or Indigenous stakeholders more broadly, we have to be transparent and we have to have trust. If we don't have that, there is no relationship,” Allan said. “It’s why we’ve invested heavily in ensuring our Indigenous stakeholders have a voice at the table and their perspectives resonate across our business at every level.”

Characterised by its distinctive red dirt, sweeping landscapes and Dreamtime stories (Tjukurrpa) passed down for tens of thousands of years, Tjiwarl Country in the Northern Goldfields of Western Australia, the land BHP’s Nickel West Northern Operations are based on, is the home of a native title agreement that rewrote precedent.

As CEO of the Tjiwarl Aboriginal Corporation, the registered native title body corporate representing Tjiwarl people, Greg Ryan-Gadsden is able to reflect on an evolving approach.

“The history of mining and native title holders hasn't always been fantastic but I think over time, with a company like BHP, we've seen a change in that relationship,” Greg said. “So from being a benefactor for royalties and wanting economic value for the country, through to really starting to listen to the needs of the native title holders.”

In 2018, a wide-ranging native title agreement between Tjiwarl and BHP that went beyond native title was signed, influenced heavily by the community’s ambitions and priorities in areas including culture, land management, business development, education and employment.

In the years since, over 50 Tjiwarl Traditional Owners have completed an eight-week Work Ready program, securing a Certificate II Resource Infrastructure and Work Preparation. A balance of theoretical and practical learning, the program is a pathway into the resources industry. developed and overseen by Melanie Tullock-Dhu, Principal Indigenous Engagement (Northern Operations).

“Working with the Tjiwarl community, which I am also part of, has been a great experience,” Melanie said. ”It's giving people opportunities to come out and work on Country, gain full-time employment and be supported every step of the way.”

“If you look at some of our earlier agreements, the language and our targets have been very aspirational,” Allan said. “Agreements such as the Tjiwarl agreement transcended those barriers that were inhibiting our relationship with Traditional Owners.”

From tailored contract opportunities for Indigenous-owned businesses through to cultural awareness training that has been completed by over 2,000 employees at BHP, the Tjiwarl agreement represents a diverse blueprint for the future.

“The BHP agreement was a major departure and a step forward to more contemporary thinking,” Greg Ryan-Gadsden continued. “It's not about one or two years, but it's actually decades.”

“Mining may come and go but the native title holders will be there for generations, going on, hopefully, for thousands of years so what's done now through the BHP relationship could well be a very important legacy for the future.”

Across Minerals Australia, the Indigenous Engagement team, which is represented by more than 50 per cent Indigenous people, are reviewing six existing and negotiating 15 new agreements – all with an emphasis on co-design with Traditional Owners and Indigenous stakeholders.

Find out more about our focus on Indigenous partnerships at: 

1Allan James is a Tjiwarl Native Title holder and represented the community during agreement negotiations in his capacity as a Tjiwarl Aboriginal Corporation Director before returning to BHP in 2021