Course:EOSC311/2021/Exploring the conflict between land tenure and resource extraction: A case study in Australia's Pilbara region

From UBC Wiki
Before and after image taken of the sacred site demolished by Rio Tinto's iron ore mining in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia. Retrieved from BBC NEWS


This Wiki page explores a specific case study of how mining impacts local Indigenous communities in Pilbara, Australia. Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining companies uses Indigenous lands to extract iron ore. On May 24th, despite ongoing protests by the Indigenous groups, Rio Tinto had demolished a 46,000 year old sacred site in order to expand the Australian mine[1]. Conflict in value has led to disastrous outcomes for the local Indigenous communities. Unfortunately, this is not the first instance of a large company overriding local values for profit and it certainly won’t be the last. This is the result of the centuries old colonial structures shaping who controls the lands, who can have input, and which resources hold value.

Statement of connection

My program at UBC is the Natural Resources Conservation in the Faculty of Forestry which focuses a lot on the relationship between humans and conservation practices. Therefore, land tenure was an appropriate connection given my education in conservation and geologies’ interest in human well-being (aka resource extraction). More specifically, my subject focuses on land tenure disputes motivated by corporate extraction from an Indigenous perspective. I believe that understanding what makes land valuable is a complex question that involves many stakeholders and considers multiple values. These values are often different in geology and conservation; however both should be considered whenever we are assigning explicit value to nature.


Resource extraction is an important tool for countries to boost their economy and increase well-being[2]. Geologists agree that resource extraction (mining in particular) is critical for a countries’ development and is in fact a major player in future environmentally friendly technologies[3]. Our Earths rocks and minerals hold real value because they are the building blocks of the productive societies we see today[4]. Unfortunately, these minerals are often formed through intense time, temperature, and pressure sensitive systems not replicable on Earth’s surface[4]. To extract these materials at their source requires a lot of time, labour, and money. It also requires destruction of habitat, environmental disturbance, and pollution[3]. This affects local communities and wildlife and can threaten future land use. Therefore it is important to weigh the economic, social, and environmental impacts of resource extraction from both a geological and environmental perspective.

Historically, these factors have not always been equally considered. Places with economic value have too often surpassed local protests and concerns of environmental degradation[5]. It is also no coincidence that the entities benefiting from the resource are not those most directly impacted. Colonialism has long been the culprit of exploiting foreign land to increase the wealth in another[5]. There are many examples of this occurring in South Africa, many of which are continuing to feel the impacts of this power structure today. Although mining does provide labour opportunities for locals, they are often dangerous and backbreaking jobs[6]. Sourcing local labour benefits the company as it is often cheaper[7].

Although many Indigenous groups cooperate with mining companies for the significant economic benefits, they may not align with the means in which the land is exploited[5]. This was the case for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Peoples (PKKP). On May 24th, 2020, the iron ore mining company Rio Tinto, willingly destroyed a culturally significant cave site in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia despite the protests and warnings from local chiefs[1]. Rio Tinto had previously been credited for their involvement and consultation with local Indigenous communities, however this event has revealed some troubling dynamics[5]. Although consultations had taken place, the rights to the land remain with Rio Tinto who are legally granted permission to use the land as they see fit[8]. Therefore, their tenure rights allowed them to favour their values of the land over others[5]. The Juukan Gorge ancient cave was over 46,000 years old with over 7,000 relics discovered on site[1]. This type of damage is irreparable to a local community who has lost a significant piece of their heritage. Although the iron ore discovered there had value and has benefits for the economy, the sacred site does as well.

What makes land valuable?

Unlike manufactured goods, there is no explicit price associated with land’s production cost. Therefore, conservationists, economists, and governments have derived valuation systems in order to put a price on nature’s goods and services[9]. An example of this contingent valuation method (CVM) would be Replacement Cost[10]. Replacement Cost could be used on a drinking water stream. If the stream were to hypothetically become contaminated, we would project the costs of either replacing the source with an alternative or repairing the source. That cost then becomes the value of the stream. Another CVM is Travel Cost, which is great for outdoor recreational areas[9]. This method assigns value based on the maximum time an individual is willing to travel to experience that specific activity. The maximum distance their willing to travel can be converted to a cost[9]. There are many other CVMs which can be used exclusively or in combination with others to get an average. Another method of valuation is related to the value of the resources available on that land, for example the market value of timber or iron ore. Since iron ore is worth billions in the eyes of the government, so is the land on which it is located[5]. This value can also be compounded since it involves the acknowledgement of the scarcity/abundance, the required labour and technological inputs, the financial investment, accessibility, and the time involved to form and extract the resource.

Cartoon illustrating the apathy towards other culture and hertiage in the pursuit of profits. Cartoon by David Pope, published in The Canberra Times.

Since there is no specific global standard for using CVM, it is possible that the very same land can be valued differently. CVM is heavily influenced by the lands intended usage (bias) and often uses proxies to measure its worth, as opposed to a direct measurement[9]. Although CVM can be a great tool for small scale research projects, it should not be used for cases with complex stakeholder and environmental systems.

The simplification of this process can leave out lots of important considerations which cannot be easily quantified. For example, Indigenous communities may value an area for its historical and traditional importance or for providing habitat to a culturally significant species. The Aboriginal caves in Western Australia are no exception. These sites are remnants of their ancient history with the land, containing sacred water sources, historical artifacts, and spiritual ties which can all be very informative for geology and historical research[11].

When the ideas of conservation first emerged, it was believed that nature’s worth could not be quantified and only possessed inherent value[12]. Others argue that nature has religious ties above humans, in which it should not be defiled by human activities[12]. Therefore there are many different perspectives on whether the land should or should not be valued. It becomes important however to address the economic problem referred to as the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’[13]. The ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ occurs when a resource lacks valuation, prompting individuals to act in pursuit of personal gain[13]. A classic environmental example is recreational and commercial fishing. Some lakes do not have regulations regarding licenses and or monitoring of the present fish species. Thus, the resource is treated as scarce and in competition with other fishers, resulting in overexploitation without repercussion. This becomes even more complicated when you factor in land tenure and ownership. Who owns and is responsible for regulating the resource?

Societies readily recognize quantitative assessment since it is easier to visualize, and it works better in the system in relation to other regulations and institutions. In Australia, these responsibilities primarily reside with the ‘Crown’ (over 75%) where the land can be leased or licensed to other entities[14]. Although this provides some regulation for the land’s resources, it also means that smaller tenures can be overpowered.

How valuation relates to land tenure

The individual or entity responsible for assigning value often resides with the land tenure holder. Land tenure is the manner in which an individual/entity defines the rights to usage and occupation of the land in accordance with different types of ownership[15]. This form of administration can resolve conflicts and create clear boundaries on resource use and determine their associated enforcement and justice system. Although land tenure is important in avoiding the Tragedy of the Commons, it is administered by the Australian government through the same colonial systems in which it was founded. These systems are motivated by profit and promote the ceasing of Indigenous traditional territory[5]. Although there is tenure exclusively catering to Indigenous land, such as the ‘Aboriginal freehold land’ and ‘Native Title’, both of these titles can be overridden by the Crown if there are valuable mineral and/or petroleum resources occurring on the land[15]. It is also important to keep in mind that these land ownership titles are not so willingly distributed. It is a tedious process to get tenure for your land as the default remains with the government[15]. Under the Western Australian Mining Act 1978, “all minerals including petroleum and geothermal energy existing in their natural form are owned by the State”[15]. Several companies have been granted permission to damage 463 sites in the past 10 years, locals anticipate there could be hundreds more in the near future. Very few of these sites are studied in detail before determining its outcome[5].

An image of iron ore, the resource extracted from Rio Tinto's mines. Retrieved from STEEL CLUB

By revoking Aboriginal tenure that was obtained in de jure fashion (despite their de facto traditional systems), the State is superseding their right to reside on the land of their ancestors. This is of course motivated by the States valuation of that land. Iron ore mining is Australia’s single largest export with over 794 million tonnes mined in Western Australia alone, worth over A$78.2 billion[16]. State money goes towards funding various projects and/or services such as subsidizing schooling and healthcare. Despite the clear benefits for the State it is not as transparent what the qualitative costs are. Since iron ore has a market value, it becomes easy for the State to invest in the resource, however a sacred site may not hold any monetary value. To local groups these sacred sites may be considered priceless for the irreplaceable cultural ties over thousands of years, lamentably priceless is often confused with $0[17]. In fact, that land holds generations of community history, teaching opportunities for future generations, recreation and enjoyment, renewable and complex forest, wildlife and river systems, and subsistence harvesting.

During the tragedy that occurred on May 24, 2020, 46,000 years of indigenous history was erased. The former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd commented that the site was “9 times older than Stonehenge, 23 times older than the colosseum, and 75 times older than Machu Picchu”[1]. Artifacts and relics were demolished, leaving local groups devastated. Despite the sacred site containing so much value, there are no systems for reconciliation because there is no recognized value for what was lost[5]. When the State ceased the land for mining, they held ownership over the management of that land which was granted to Rio Tinto who ultimately decided what was of value, and what wasn’t.  

Conclusion / Evaluation of the Connections

Locals protesting Rio Tinto's actions in the Juukan Gorge, Western Australia. Outrage provoked by the injustices towards the PKKP Peoples heritage and traditional sacred site. Photos taken by Richard Wainwright

I believe that the ties between mining and land tenure are highly related, as anything with value will always require the tenure to regulate it. What’s more interesting is the discussion behind how this tenure is distributed and who get to be the rights holders. In several instances around the world, Indigenous Peoples are not favoured for land tenure, especially when that land holds resources of economic value. Despite more recent efforts towards reconciliation, there is still a long way to go before we can see tangible results in legislature[5]. Although it is required for mining companies to consult local chiefs when dealing with a potential sacred site, that is often the extent of their privileges. Sometimes they will reach some sort of agreement, however these negotiations are under the influence of an imbalanced power dynamic. Pilbara’s chiefs had very few options other than trading their traditional lands and this did not mean that the Indigenous groups were fully consensual[5]. In fact, they had been protesting the demolition for 7 years before that[1]. As a result of secure tenure, the outcome led to no significant repercussions for the destruction of another stakeholder’s value. Tenure in this instance, is heavily influenced by the monetary valuation of the resource iron ore.

Locals protesting Rio Tinto's actions in the Juukan Gorge, Western Australia. Outrage provoked by the injustices towards the PKKP Peoples heritage and traditional sacred site. Photos taken by Richard Wainwright

Land will always have intricate stakeholder and environmental complexes. Therefore, it is important to consider more than one perspective in a land’s management and decision-making processes. Although Indigenous Peoples are the focus of this wiki page, there are several other groups who struggle with tenure and resource extraction rights across space (First World and Developing Countries), genders (females), and complexion (racism)[18]. It is important that the affected stakeholders play a larger role than simple consultation and that their tenure rights are respected and enforced. There will always be trade-offs when dealing with land rights and usage, which is why it is imperative that decision-making is a discussion to evaluate them and not left in the hands of a single entity.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Watson, A., &, Westcott, B. (June 1, 2020). "Rio Tinto apologizes for blowing up 46,000-year-old sacred indigenous site in Australia's Pilbara region". CNN Business. Retrieved June 14, 2021.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. Downes, P. (2015). "The Effect of the Mining Boom on the Australian Economy". Reserve Bank of Australia Research Discussion Paper. 2014(08).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Sonter, L.J., Ali, S.H., &, Watson, J.E.M. (2018). "Mining and biodiversity: key issues and research needs in conservation science". Royal Society. 285(1892).CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. 4.0 4.1 O'Regan, B., &, Moles, R. (2005). "Using system dynamics to model the interaction between environmental and economic factors in the mining industry". Jounal of Cleaner Production. 14(8): 689–707.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 Allam, L., &, Wahlquist, C. (August 27, 2020). "More than 100 Aboriginal sacred sites – some dating before the ice age – could be destroyed by mining companies". The Guardian. Retrieved June 14, 2021.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. McKenzie, F.M. (2020). "Are there enduring community values from mining for Aboriginal people in the Pilbara?". Informit.
  7. Peck, Jamie (August 2013). "Polanyi in the Pilbara". Australian Geographer. 44(3): 243-264. – via DOI: 10.1080/00049182.2013.817037.
  8. Australian Trade and Investment Commission. "Mining, Minerals, and Petroleum Rights". Land Tenure, Mining, Minerals, and Petroleum Rights. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Boxall, P. C., Adamowicz, W. L., Swait, J., Williams, M.,, & Louviere, J. (1996). "A comparison of stated preference methods for environmental valuation". Ecological Economics. 18(3): 243–253 – via maint: extra punctuation (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. Aizaki, H., Sato,K., &, Osari, H. (2006). "Contingent valuation approach in measuring the multifunctionality of agriculture and rural areas in Japan". Paddy and Water Environment. 4: 217–222.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  11. Barber, M., &, Jackson, S. (2012). "Aboriginal water values and resource development pressures in the Pilbara region of north-west Australia". Informit. Retrieved June 14, 2021.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. 12.0 12.1 Cronon, W. (1996). "The trouble with wilderness". Environmental History. 1(1): 7–28.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Weitz, J.S., Eksin,C., Paarporn, K.; et al. (2016). "An oscillating tragedy of the commons in replicator dynamics with game-environment feedback". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113(47). Explicit use of et al. in: |first= (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. CSIRO (2019). "Improving land tenure in Northern Australia". Australia's National Science Agency. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 Australian Trade and Investment Commission. "What is Land Tenure?". Land Tenure. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
  16. "Iron ore mining in Western Australia". Wikipedia. Retrieved June 14, 2021.
  17. Keen, I. (2010). "Indigenous Participation in Australian Economies: Historical and anthropological perspectives" (PDF). The Australian National University.
  18. Peters, P.E. (2009). "Challenges in Land Tenure and Land Reform in Africa: Anthropological Contributions". World Developemnt. 37(8): 1317–1325.

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This Earth Science resource was created by Megan Burkholder. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.