Social Impact Assessment and value coordination on the Western Cape

By Oliver Hill

Following a flurry of activity over February 2017 to finalise ethics approval, I was away to far north-west cape of Queensland to complete my Masters research field interviews over 4 days with the locals of Weipa. Despite the tropical location, Weipa was actually chosen for field work due to its prevalence in academic literature as an example of ‘leading practice’ resource development, and the championing by Rio Tinto as one of its premiere indigenous land use agreements.

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My research project has looked to verify the outcomes of Social Impact Assessment (SIA) in the region, to determine whether Weipa is the example of ‘leading practice’ SIA it is said to be in academic literature. Following this, I also planned to identify what aspects of the development required more attention from the perspective of the 12 traditional communities affected by these operations on the Western Cape York Peninsula.

A 3-hour flight from nearby Cairns, Weipa has remained fairly isolated from the rest of Queensland partially due to the regular flooding of roads during the wet season. The township developed quickly in a short time, however there is still a strong air of grieving in the area due to the legacy issues left behind from the building of mission camps from the 1800s and the forced removal of communities in the 1960s.

Efforts to build greater social cohesion and look to the future of the community have been helped by the distribution of mining royalties through the Western Cape Community Trust, but it is the leadership of community representatives that is making the real difference to the area. Early findings are showing that women in particular are taking the lead in the push for greater livelihoods (education attendance, community support services, business opportunities), and a greater understanding of indigenous culture by all stakeholders in the Western Cape.

Further findings include a frequent mismatch of community expectations with the opportunities provided, a lack of power to initiate binding compliance or legal proceedings, and a lack of cultural understanding and “recognition” by those employed through Rio Tinto or working in the Western Cape area. There are many directions that could be taken further from this research; from the embedding of indigenous recognition within private institutions, the empowering of communities through establishing adequate legal grievance mechanisms, and how communities can lead the advance of indigenous management capacity. Development in these areas requires an interdisciplinary approach which encompasses areas of business, law, environmental management, and social sciences. It has been a rewarding experience applying the knowledge I have picked up from a variety of disciplines to a single project and I believe future work in Weipa will require this approach in order to address all the aspects of such a multi-faceted issue.