People and industry

The impacts of human activity on the environment are well documented in the other chapters of this report, and these impacts in turn put pressure on Indigenous wellbeing (see Impacts on wellbeing and cultural practices). In addition, some human activities put direct pressure on Indigenous heritage and culture.

Development and land-use change

Expanding and intensifying development is increasingly impacting Indigenous people’s ability to connect to and enjoy land and sea Country (see the Biodiversity and Land chapters). Indigenous people hold obligations to care for parts of Country that are not formally recognised within the Indigenous estate (see Indigenous land ownership and management), and increasing urban and peri-urban development limits practices of caring for Country. Lands determined to have non-exclusive native title and lands subject to Indigenous Land Use Agreements are 2 categories that subject Indigenous interests to regulation by others. This means that native title holders have little ability to control access to and determine the use of land (Keon-Cohen 2017).

Pressures on Country from development were highlighted in the consultations with Indigenous people and communities for this report. Indigenous respondents said that in northern New South Wales and the Northern Territory, gas companies are playing a significant role in damaging Country (Murawin 2021c). In the New South Wales Pilliga–Narrabri area, gas smells in the air were said to be making local people sick. One Elder provided the example of river water being able to be set alight because it contains high gas levels, and river fish dying because the water has been poisoned by coal seam gas. In and around Darwin, development was cited as affecting local water supplies (Prendergast 2021).

For more remote communities, development on hunting grounds is removing access to traditional practices. Recent changes to Northern Territory legislation have allowed for the large-scale development of pastoral lands, and industry and pastoralists in the Northern Territory are reducing Indigenous access to Country and the means to undertake traditional hunting activities.

There is a perception that the COVID-19 pandemic has facilitated a reduction in ‘red tape’ that has also contributed to rapid approvals of large-scale developments (e.g. horticultural farming, rare mineral exploration and mining developments, cotton farming). Singleton Station, for example, has been approved as a large-scale horticultural farm with a licence to extract 40,000 megalitres from the same aquifer as the township of Alice Springs. There is concern about this approval and its potential impact on natural resources, and the matter is currently under review due to many concerns that Traditional Owners and others have raised (CLC 2021c).

Both the federal and territory governments are seen as pushing large industrial farming and energy (e.g. hydrogen production) and mining ventures on land that is marginal in terms of water availability and sustainability. There are not enough community resources to fight the development. Some of these plans propose a ‘self-sufficient’ approach in their initial establishment phase. But there are concerns that once they experience a few years of drought, they will then approach governments and request larger quantities of water to sustain the venture and jobs, at which stage community, cultural and environmental positions will be unable to effectively respond to the push to save jobs.

Industrial and commercial pressures

There is considerable pressure on Indigenous cultural sites, landscapes and associated knowledge from mining and other commercial industries such as forestry. These pressures threaten the natural and cultural values of native forests, and fishing, which in turn are major pressures on Indigenous marine environmental practices.


Approximately 60% of mining projects are close to Indigenous communities (DISER & DFAT 2016). In 2020, approximately one-third of Indigenous land in the Northern Territory was subject to existing exploration licences or new applications under negotiation (Austrade n.d.). Much has been written about the detriments and benefits of mining for Indigenous people. In the consultation for this chapter, mining, especially fracking, was seen as a major impact to Indigenous land and wellbeing of people.

A huge detriment of mining is the destruction of sites and limitations of access for Indigenous people. In 2020, Rio Tinto blew up Juukan Gorge after obtaining a heritage permit from the Western Australian Government (see the Heritage chapter). This was a devastating event for Indigenous people and for all Australians. But tragically, this type of destruction is not rare, and has been occurring in other areas of the country. The event triggered increasing calls for heritage law reform to provide for greater inclusion of Indigenous people through consultation, and to enable Indigenous decision-making and agreement-making on more equitable terms.

Mining can bring benefits for Indigenous communities when they are able to make decisions that enable their continuing role to care for Country, and to manage sites and places. The Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 (Cth) gives Indigenous landowners rights to veto mining exploration on their lands. However, once exploration has been agreed, the landowners cannot refuse any mining, but instead can make mutually beneficial agreements with mining companies (CLC 2021b) and seek compensation for any damage.

The Northern Territory Aboriginal Sacred Sites Act 1989 makes it illegal to damage sacred sites. In Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority v OM Mining (Manganese) Ltd in 2013 (Bootu Creek) (Court of Summary Jurisdiction 2013), the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority successfully prosecuted a mining proponent for desecrating a sacred site known as ‘Two Women Sitting Down’ near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory. In the judgement, the Darwin Magistrate’s Court considered the legislative definition of ‘desecration’ as including ‘not so much the physical integrity of the site but … whether what has occurred in relation to it has violated the sacred symbols or beliefs that it represents’ (Court of Summary Jurisdiction 2013). This case was the first successful prosecution of a mining company for desecration of a sacred site in the Northern Territory and resulted in a penalty of $150,000 for the offence.

The recent landmark Timber Creek native title decision (Northern Territory v Mr A. Griffiths (deceased) and Lorraine Jones on behalf of the Ngaliwurruand Nungali Peoples (2019) HCA 2018) determined the value of compensation required to compensate native title holders when their title has been extinguished or impaired. The Ngaliwurru and Nungali peoples were awarded $1.3 million as compensation for their loss of connection to Country and ‘spiritual hurt’ (HCA 2018). Timber Creek provides a model for valuing culture as equivalent to the ‘amount which society would consider appropriate for the loss’ (HCA 2018) and has policy implications for valuing native title and managing external mining interests on (nonexclusive) native title lands (Dillon 2019).

The Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) gives native title holders the right to negotiate with mining companies about mutually beneficial agreements but not the right to veto exploration. Making agreements with mining companies has become a large part of the business of Indigenous landowners, land councils and Prescribed Bodies Corporate. There are also potential benefits from employment and business development, and working together on projects (DISER & DFAT 2016). According to 2016 Census data, Indigenous people comprise 3.8% of the mining workforce (6,652 individuals) (ABS 2017b). Procurement opportunities are growing for Indigenous businesses in the mining supply chains. A positive development is the establishment of Indigenous mining companies, such as Gulkula, who can bring their own values to management of Country in mining projects (see case study: Gulkula – an Indigenous-owned and -operated mine in the Northern Territory, in the Extractive industries management section in the Land chapter).

But mining companies are also often seen as not genuine in their responses to protecting or rehabilitating mining sites, and governments are often reticent or powerless to enforce agreements.

With regard to heritage issues within community, there has been zero consultation by both the local council and government. No reference group on Aboriginal issues. There has been a clearing of land that is a sacred heritage site, the council had no consultation with Aboriginal people, and the purpose of destruction to land was for the development of high-rise buildings. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, New South Wales (Murawin 2021c)

Corporate Australia, especially mining companies should be doing much more to contribute to ranger programs and other community initiatives (beyond purchasing some footy jumpers!). SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Northern Territory (Murawin 2021c)

Site remediation and mine repurposing, and the liability on Indigenous landowners, are continuing impacts of mining on Indigenous people. For example, the closure and rehabilitation of the Ranger uranium mine in 2021 will need decommissioning and rehabilitation work (DAWE 2021b). The rehabilitation poses long-term threats to the environment and Mirrar Traditional Owners (Lawrence 2021) – for example, through the potential ongoing accumulation of radioactive material in bush foods, and the contaminants concentrated in surface water including creeks, billabongs and seeps (OSS 2020). Jabiru was returned to Mirrar Traditional Owners in June 2021 (Perkins 2021a), which the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation is planning to transform into a tourism hub for Kakadu National Park (Jabiru Kabolkmakmen 2021).

The Central Land Council have noted that extractive industries in the Northern Territory have significant impacts on water, stating that while there is public attention on fracking, the water-intensive processes of mining can be overlooked (DAWE 2021a & Central Land Council, pers comm, 2021). The Northern Territory is the only Australian jurisdiction to not charge mining companies for water use. The council noted 4 projects that will impact water: the Verdant Minerals Ammaroo Phosphate Project, the TNG Mount Peake Project, the Arafura Resources Nolans Project and the KGL Jervois Project.


Forestry industries offer benefits and risks for Indigenous people. Many Indigenous people have a long experience of engaging with forestry industries. Indigenous people’s stories of working in the forestry and wood-processing industries highlight job opportunities and improved social and economic outcomes (Borschmann 1999). The National Indigenous Forestry Strategy proposed that Indigenous communities should help to build competitive and ecologically sustainable forest industries (DAWE 2005).

The strategy is based on the concept that participation in these industries can help Indigenous communities in many parts of Australia become more economically independent and interact with the wider community, while staying connected to their cultural values. There is a strong interest in activities that the strategy promotes, and several Indigenous communities are now engaged in establishing plantations for timber harvest, and others in the logging of native forests (Stephens et al. 2020). For example, some Indigenous groups in Western Australia are involved in the $40 million sandalwood industry (Prendergast 2021). The Western Australian Native Sandalwood Industry Strategy included enhancing value through best-practice certification, which includes value-adding opportunities through branding that recognise legal source and regeneration efforts, and involving Indigenous people (FPCWA 2017).

On the other hand, native forest logging has contributed to species extinction in Australia and has made forests more vulnerable to catastrophic fires (Woinarski et al. 2019), thereby damaging both natural and Indigenous cultural values. Some Indigenous people identify risks from forestry operations and are seeking to prevent logging of forests on their traditional lands (Kenyon 2020). In addition, concerns are growing among Indigenous people that the current level of native sandalwood harvesting is not sustainable (Prendergast 2021).

Irrigation agriculture

Irrigation agriculture puts pressure on water resources and can limit the amount of water that is available for environmental and cultural flows (see the Inland water chapter), threatening the health of rivers and the exercise of traditional customs and cultural obligations (Bates 2018). An example of the pressures on the environment as a result of irrigation agriculture is the devastation wrought on the Murray–Darling system (Davis 2019). This has resulted from several factors related to water management, including overallocation of water resources for agriculture. An example of significant pressures can be seen in the rapidly expanding almond industry, which has increased its footprint by 900% in the past 20 years (Jasper 2018). Almond growing uses 3 times the amount of water required for crops such as wheat or feed grain (Simpson 2016). Almonds now represent Australia’s most lucrative horticultural crop, but are known to greatly deplete biodiversity and threaten bee populations and health, using many harmful pesticides (Schremmer 2020, Mann 2021) (see case study: Almond production in Australia, in the Agriculture section in the Inland water chapter) (see the Land, Coasts and Biodiversity chapters).


Tourism is a vehicle that can help sustain Indigenous cultural heritage, including languages, stories, song, art, dance, hunting methods, rituals and customs (Ruhanen & Whitford 2019). Tourism stimulates employment, can generate income for investment in preservation, and nurtures a sense of pride and self-esteem among host communities (UNWTO 2015).

But while tourism can deliver wellbeing benefits and funding for community enterprise, this is countered by threats to Indigenous culture that can accrue as a result of tourism: cultural degradation, commercialisation and commodification of intangible cultural heritage (Ruhanen & Whitford 2019), and environmental impacts from high visitation levels on Country.

Tourism and recreational activity can cause damage and interference with cultural practices for caring for sites. For example, rock climbing in the Grampians in Victoria led to destruction and reduced access to sites (see case study: Gariwerd (Grampians National Park), in the A coordinated approach by Australian governments section in the Heritage chapter). On the Daly River, Northern Territory, increased boating has led to a wider and shallower river and faster erosion, as well as more rubbish being left at sacred sites (Novak et al. 2021). Non-traditional feral pig and buffalo hunting were also raised as issues in the community consultations undertaken in Darwin for this report. An increase in feral pig hunters using quad bikes on Country is eroding soil. In Arnhem Land, the tyre tracks left from buffalo hunting have impacted freshwater systems of high cultural value.

It is fundamental that cultural tourism is led by those Indigenous people whose cultural and intellectual property creates the tourist attraction or enterprise.


In the marine and coastal environment, commercial and recreational fishing impacts cultural practices of traditional hunting and fishing. Changes to marine environments also affect cultural practices – for example, changes to the maireener shells in Tasmania affect Aboriginal women’s practice of shell necklace–making (e.g. see Greeno 2021). Similar circumstances apply to the kelp forests that are being devastated through climate change, impacting the use of kelp for healing and as cultural objects such as water carriers.

In its 2008 Blue Mud Bay Decision, the Australian High Court recognised exclusive Traditional Owner rights over sea Country in the intertidal zone along 85% of the Northern Territory’s coastline. The decision has important implications not only for commercial fisheries and Traditional Owners, but also for recreational fishing access to affected waters and the Northern Territory Government’s management of onshore fisheries. However, the development of opportunities for Traditional Owners seeking to benefit from the ‘blue economy’ and Traditional Owner–controlled commercial fishing enterprises, as well as controlling licences to other commercial fishers, has been slow (see case study: Indigenous commercial fishing in New South Wales, in the Effectiveness of management in Indigenous commercial fishing section in the Marine chapter) (see the Industry section in the Coasts chapter). Fisheries are significant economic and customary markets that Indigenous people have limited access to due to industry regulations and pressures.

Assessment Pressures on Country, connections and Indigenous people
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence

There are very high negative effects on Indigenous people across Australia from environmental, socio-political and economic pressures and drivers of change. The overall trend is deteriorating, with pressures increasing. Legacies of colonisation continue to impact through, for example, cultural knowledge piracy. Clearing of land, climate change and mining expansion are among many environmental changes damaging Country and Indigenous people’s heritage, cultural connections and obligations. Environmental programs pay insufficient attention to cultural obligations, and regulations can impede key cultural activities such as Indigenous hunting, fishing and gathering traditions. Unequal access to funding and to Country is degrading knowledge of, and activities on, Country. These negative impacts are largely consistent across regions, with some exceptions.
Related to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal targets 12.4, 13.1, 14.2, 15.5

Assessment Legacies of colonisation that degrade Indigenous people’s capacity, equity and cultural safety for governance and management of Australia’s land and seas
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Legacies of colonisation continue to have very high negative impacts through, for example, cultural knowledge piracy and the politics of ongoing colonial oppression.
Regionally consistent.

Assessment Pressures that degrade environmental assets of significance to Indigenous people
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Pressures like land clearing, climate change and mining expansion are growing, and their impacts on Indigenous people are increasing.
Regionally consistent.

Assessment Environmental pressures that degrade cultural and environmental knowledge and practices for caring for Country, and cross-generational transmission of these
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation is deteriorating.
Adequate confidence

Physical pressures are increasing – for example, climate change, deforestation, and socio-political pressures such as formal environmental management programs that do not fund Elders and young people to be on Country together at the same time or regulations that make Indigenous fishing difficult.
Regionally consistent.

Assessment Socio-economic pressures on Indigenous people
2021 Assessment graphic showing that pressures are very high, meaning they strongly degrade the state of the environment, over a large extent and with a high degree of severity. The situation is deteriorating.
Somewhat adequate confidence

Unequal access to money, land, sea and water are pressures that stop people engaging in businesses that would allow them to practise caring for Country and pass on their knowledge.
Regionally variable, with some regions having greater access to funding.