Throughout the 18th century, the arrival of settler-colonialists in Australia proved to be catastrophic for the country’s Indigenous population; with the resulting erosion of ancestral and cultural histories continuing to have significant reverberations for Indigenous communities in Australia today, particularly in the Northern Territory (NT). In this contemporary context, direct genocidal violence has evolved into the political, economic, and environmental discrimination of Indigenous communities, which has been exacerbated by government policies and external economic interests. In response, local Indigenous communities have been steadfast in their activism against these shifting forms of racial exclusion and exploitation. Specifically, the artistic representation of environmental advocacy and political expression has been instrumental in the continued struggle against violence and the expansion of multinational corporations (MNCs) onto sacred Indigenous land. As the global community constructs responses to the environmental and humanitarian consequences of our hyper-capitalist society, the work of local activists remains an essential perspective to consider. 

Settler-Colonial History

In the late 18th century, British colonial settlers arrived in Australia, a continent that had been sustainably inhabited by thousands of Indigenous tribal communities for 65,000 years. By the turn of the 20th century, less than 100,000 Indigenous people had survived 100 years of British settlement due to the rampant spread of disease, exploitation of natural resources, and direct violence. Settler-colonial state governments continued to informally mandate murderous campaigns against entire Indigenous communities throughout the “Frontier Wars” of the early 1900s, in which genocidal acts by state and police forces were systemically justified and covered up. In 1927, a Royal Commission was established to investigate this rampant violence being perpetrated against Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The Commission was the first of its kind to specifically address racial violence against Indigenous communities and was especially pertinent in the aftermath of the Forrest River Massacre of 1926, in which 16 Indigenous individuals were murdered by police who then proceeded to conceal evidence by burning the bodies of those killed in the massacre. 

Since this initial inquiry, multiple other commissions were set up to investigate state violence and discrimination against Indigenous communities, and thus the long and convoluted road to attempted reconciliation began. By no means did these commissions indicate the end of violence against Indigenous communities in the NT and throughout Australia, as flagrant discrimination and inequities remain prevalent to this day; therefore recognizing the shifting face of racial violence throughout the country has become an incredibly meaningful initiative. Indigenous communities in the NT and across Australia continue to grapple with the repercussions of a violent settler-colonial history, with overall life expectancy for Indigenous individuals estimated to be a shocking 25% lower than the rest of the Australian population. Police brutality, income inequality, inadequate access to healthcare, and environmental degradation continue to plague Indigenous communities, with little to no accountability being enforced by the state or federal governments. 

MNCs and Environmental Degradation

One site of significant contention between international capitalist interests and local Indigenous communities in the NT has been the McArthur River Mine, a highly lucrative lead-zinc mine located in the Gulf of Carpentaria region. The site is owned by the Swiss mining MNC Glencore, one of the largest global stakeholders of tradeable minerals such as zinc, copper, and lead. This position as a global industry giant has also led to a considerable amount of controversy for Glencore, as numerous environmental and political scandals have inspired local and international calls for various sites, including the McArthur River Mine, to be shut down. 

A 2016 environmental review confirmed the presence of toxic waste leakage from the mine into waterways surrounding the site, contaminating fish, drinking water, and soil for nearby communities – a majority of which are Indigenous. Despite several environmental groups and local communities campaigning for the closure of the mine, in November 2020, Glencore was officially granted permission to expand the mine to twice its current size. This blatant disregard for sacred sites and the environmental health of local communities has widely come to be known as “environmental racism” – a concept that has global implications and distinct roots in Australia’s settler-colonial history.

A Path Forward 

All this considered, the case of the McArthur River Mine is not a standalone occurrence of environmental racism and cultural ignorance perpetrated by a single MNC, but rather the product of government systems structured around the exclusion and exploitation of Australia’s entire Indigenous population. Local Indigenous leaders have addressed these prevailing inequities through several avenues of resistance, rooted in the powerful notions of traditional artistic and political expression. Recent pieces such as the “Lead In My Grandmother’s Body” exhibition, curated by several individuals from within the Garrwa, Yanyuwa, and Gangalidda Indigenous communities, strives not only to depict the harrowing implications of recent environmental issues in the NT but also poignantly connects this contemporary reality with the history of genocide and discrimination that Australia continues to reckon with. 

As Indigenous activists continue to fight for government reform, cultural recognition, and environmental protection, policymakers must in turn recognize the settler-colonial roots of these contemporary issues. MNCs and state governments stand as the primary beneficiaries of a continuum of racial discrimination that permeates contemporary Australian society, disguised by notions of economic prosperity. Therefore, the positionality of actors wishing to infringe upon Indigenous territories must be a primary consideration within any legal decisions on land rights or financial compensation. Acknowledging these current manifestations of settler-colonial violence will certainly not heal hundreds of years of discrimination and genocide, but such actions could serve as a nexus towards a future wherein the agency of Indigenous communities throughout Australia is at long last returned. 

Katie Howe

Katie is originally from the small town of Los Gatos, California and is currently in her final year of the International Relations (B.A.) program at the University of British Columbia. Her areas of interest...

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