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Green Alliances? Anti-Mining Activism and Indigenous Communities in the "New World"

Green Alliances? Anti-Mining Activism and Indigenous Communities the "New World"

Environmental organizations aimed at protecting and preserving ecosystems have generally felt a strong sense of sympathy for indigenous groups throughout the world. The enduring theme of Natives living in harmony with their natural environment has led many non-governmental organizations to think of Native concerns as part of their own agendas, particularly in the "developed" world.

Historical Parallels

European colonial repression of indigenous communities in the "New Worlds" of America and Australia was particularly severe and persistent. Unlike regions such as India or most of Africa, the settlers in America and Australia have become a permanent and overwhelming majority of the population, often displacing the indigenous peoples from their environment and instituting resourceintensive enterprises, such as mining, in their place. Environmental groups in Australia and the Americas have thus felt a particular degree of contrition toward the Native cause.

The past few decades, particularly since the United Nation's involvement in indigenous peoples issues, has brought forth a need for "atonement" in these countries. This sense of retribution is similar to the congruent need for remediation efforts in the environmental realm, as exemplified by laws such as the Superfund legislation of the 1970s in the United States. There has thus been a confluence of interests between the indigenous' rights movement and the environmental movement at the macroscale, which may occlude the latent conflicts in interest between the two movements at other levels of analysis. The common perception is that the Native people of the world are inherently environmentalists because for so long they have led relatively sustainable lifestyles. The web sites and published literature of environmental organizations tends to emphasize the linkage between a pristine environment and a peaceful and satiated indigenous population, and often highlight the lobbying efforts of the organization in preserving indigenous aspirations.

The Negotiation Process

While many of these claims stem from a genuine concern for the indigenous predicament, certain assumptions about indigenous aspirations are made by environmentalists which may be quite misleading. My recent research on conflicts between mining companies and indigenous communities in Canada and Australia reveals the dangers of assuming such an alliance without a broader appreciation of divergent views. Without getting into details of the individual cases, my aim here is to present some of the conceptual elements of the findings.

Negotiation theorists have articulated the need for a negotiated settlement in terms of opportunity costs. They argue that at the outset, both sides should estimate their Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA). The BATNA of the indigenous groups vis-à-vis the mining companies is clearly much lower than it is for the environmental groups. For the former, mining investment may be a matter of economic necessity, whereas for the latter it is a valuebased cause which would not have any direct short-term impact on their means of survival. Uranium mining exemplifies these differences most acutely because environmentalists generally advocate a permanent moratorium on uranium mining. This is true of many other mining ventures as well. However, many native groups do not appear to share the same aversion to such projects.

In most public disputes, the BATNA is largely related to the amount of power and authority the government is willing to give to the various stakeholders. Mining is critical to the economies of Saskatchewan and South Australia. In both cases the government gets large royalties from mining because mineral resources are constitutionally owned by the state. Therefore the government has accorded considerable power and respect to the mining companies in the region. Previous attempts [by environmental groups] at a purely confrontational approach, such as the opposition to the Rabbit Lake mine in Canada, or the initial protests against the Olympic Dam Uranium mine in Australia, have largely been unsuccessful. Given this dynamic, Native groups have no choice but to negotiate.

Limited Alternatives and Disunity

The alternative for Native groups to negotiating would be to get a relatively austere mining establishment in their midst with minimal social welfare consideration. The environmental groups are more interested in making a value-based statement of opposition and registering their dissent. Their alternative to negotiation is thus a series of confrontational protests that are organized in both regions.

In Australia, members of the Arabanna and Kokotha people participated in protests organized by environmental NGOs and also participated in a nationally televised documentary against mining development. There was, however, no change in the government's position nor was there any noticeable change in public opinion regarding the proposed project. Instead, what happened is that the mining company began to equate the views of the Aboriginal group who had attended the protests with that of the environmentalists and excluded them from the negotiation process. An Aboriginal group that had distanced itself from the environmentalists cut a deal with the mining company without the involvement of the group that had ostensibly joined forces with the environmentalists. This led to a violent clash between the two Aboriginal groups and one person was killed.

Epistemic and Political Coalitions

One of the key practical questions which my research has aimed to address is: Should indigenous groups form coalitions with environmental NGOs when negotiating with corporate interests? The most convincing argument for coalition-formation between environmental NGOs and indigenous groups is that the NGOs provide certain sources of technical empowerment or expertise which would otherwise not be at their disposal. Knowledge is certainly a source of empowerment in environmental disputes and while indigenous people have their own important repertoire of traditional knowledge, they may need technical assistance and education on some of the environmental impacts of technology with which they are not familiar.

However, the process by which this knowledge is obtained is usually not achieved through environmental NGOs. In Canada, the NGOs who were involved in opposition to uranium mining did not provide any direct technical support or evaluative literature to the indigenous communities. Indeed, in most cases the NGOs are urban entities who have little or no contact with the actual communities where the impact is occurring and thus have a diminished legitimacy in the negotiation process as well. Governments in developed countries clearly have the resources to provide the technical expertise and resources which the indigenous groups may need for an informed decision-making process. The key is to get institutional involvement at an objective level. Organizations such as the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND) in Canada, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in the United States or the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) are in a far more appropriate position to play a role in this process. These organizations at the federal level are independent of the vested interest that other branches of the public sector, such as provincial governments that are directly receiving royalties, possess.

In places where such institutions do not exist, such as developing countries, coalitions between environmental NGOs and indigenous people are more meaningful. However, here too tremendous care must be taken to ensure that the coalitions have a strong constituency with the local population. Indeed a separate genre of NGOs, which represent indigenous interests directly and environmental interests as a means of achieving indigenous aspirations, may play an increasingly important role in this regard. However, my analysis has focused on the larger and currently more ubiquitous presence of environmental NGOs. While there is a considerable range of opinions even within this genre, the implications of their involvement for indigenous communities have been relatively similar.


Environmental groups involved in anti-mining activities represent a form of "conflict movement" whereas most of the Native groups are more representative of "consensus movements." Both groups have several interests and values which are not shared and thus any alliances which may form are usually strategically opportunistic and usually divisive. This is not to doubt the sincerity of each group towards the other but rather a manifestation of differing worldviews about development that are not easily reconcilable. Unfortunately, these differences are often not recognized in time to avoid serious harm to each movement.

Any strategic alliances which may form between these movements should appreciate these differences at the outset. In the larger scheme of political activism both kinds of approaches are useful. However, what I have tried to argue here is that both conflict and consensus movements need to be more self-reliant. Given the sociopolitical context of resource development negotiations in developed countries, the two sectors can be more productive without forming opportunistic coalitions. As the MIT anthropologist Lisa Peattie has stated in her anthropological analysis of the Aboriginal predicament: "Social movements need both sorts of strategy -- confrontation extremism to stretch the conventional bounds of issue framing, adaptive negotiation to maintain a resource base, a contract with real world situations, and a sprinkling of real victories."

References and Further Reading

Ali, Saleem H. (Forthcoming, 1999). Cameco Corporation and WMC: Olympic Dam Uranium Mine. Boston MA: Harvard Business School Case Studies.

Edwards, Michael and David Hulme (1995). Nongovernmental Organizations -- Performance and Accountability Beyond the Magic Bullet. London UK: Earthscan.

Libby, Ronald (1991). Hawke's Law: The Politics of Mining and Aboriginal Land Rights in Australia. University Park PA: Penn State Press (Also published by University of Western Australia Press, Perth).

Morris, Aldon D. and Carol McClurg Mueller eds. (1992). Frontiers in Social Movement Theory. New Haven CT: Yale University Press.

Peattie, Lisa R. (1994). Symbolic Appropriation in Social Movement Work: Australian Aboriginal Rights in an Internationalized World of Ideas. Unpublished manuscript, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Urban Studies and Planning.

Wapner, Paul (1996). Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.

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