Australia Argyle diamond mine's future hangs in balance as Rio Tinto negotiates with traditional owners

01:11  01 august  2022
01:11  01 august  2022 Source:   msn.com

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In the shadow of the Juukan Gorge disaster, negotiations about the future of the Argyle diamond mine hang in the balance.

Argyle was not the first to discover diamonds in Western Australia's east Kimberley.

Diamonds are woven into the Dreamtime stories of the Mirriwoong and Gija traditional owners of the land.

Each have their own version of the Barramundi Dreaming story.

For thousands of years, stories about the journey of a giant barramundi moving through the landscape have been passed from generation to generation.

"There were these three old women and they'd been watching this barramundi," said Gija woman Kia Dowell.

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"They chased it and attempted to trap it in a cave.

"The old girls were using a traditional fishing method called kilkayi, where they roll up spinifex, and tried to use that as a net to catch the fish.

"The barramundi made a go of it and tried to escape and successfully did.

"It jumped through what is referred to now as Barramundi Gap. And as she did, she shed scales."

The scales are said to have become glistening diamonds of many colours in the shallow waters.

Kia Dowell remembers her grandmother telling her the story when she was a little girl.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this story contains images of people who may have died.

"For me it has this added layer of deep connection … because my grandmother has been one of a number of custodians of that story," she said.

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Kia Dowell and her family.

Supplied: Timbee Photography

Kia said her family would take her camping out the back of the Argyle mine and her grandmother would tell her the Dreamtime story, pointing to imprints left behind on the landscape.

The area is known as Barramundi Gap, a sacred women's place.

It's in this ancient landscape that Argyle opened the world's biggest diamond mine.

When mining began, the diamonds were the full range of colours, from the classic gin-and-tonic stone on an engagement ring to amber, champagne and the famous fairy-floss pinks.

The diamond mine

When geologists discovered small diamonds in WA's ancient Kimberley region in the 1970s, they didn't realise the scale of what they had found.

Their discovery would become the vast Argyle diamond mine.

Over its life, Argyle produced more coveted pink diamonds than the world had ever seen.

But now the mine has closed, what will happen to this sacred site?

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In the shadow of its Juukan Gorge disaster, mine owner Rio Tinto and traditional owners are locked in tense negotiations about what lies ahead for this landscape for the generations to follow.

The first negotiations

A painting hangs pride of place in the home office of former Argyle managing director Mick O'Leary.

In the picture, three white men sit in a dry creek bed across from several traditional owners.

They are negotiating what became known as the Good Neighbour Agreement.

The Kimberley region.

ABC News: Andrew Seabourne

Mick O'Leary remembers that day in 1980 clear as a bell.

"There were about two dozen Aboriginal people there and we sat in the dry creek bed, and the spokesman for them told us what they wanted," he said.

"They wanted five large houses built. They wanted a water supply with reticulation to the houses, they wanted lighting.

"They wanted a school with schoolteachers, and a lot of other things.

"After stage one, we would give them a certain amount of money too, so that those things could be maintained."

The deal was struck against a backdrop of heightened conflict about land rights in WA's north.

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After a two-year standoff with an international oil company, traditional owners at Noonkanbah Station physically blockaded oil rigs from drilling to protect their land.

At the time, the Canberra Times reported the company and Argyle custodians issued a statement saying traditional owners wanted to avoid a dispute like Noonkanbah.

When asked whether he thought the Good Neighbour Agreement was a fair exchange, Mick O'Leary is emphatic.

"Yes, I did," he said.

"Because at that stage, we hadn't even taken a shovelful of rock."

Mr O'Leary said the company copped criticism from both the Liberal WA government, which didn't want a deal, and the Left, who said the agreement wasn't good enough.

"We thought we could hit mid mark," he said.

"But at that time that's what I agreed with on that day."

The Good Neighbour Agreement formed the foundations for negotiations to come.

In 2004, an Indigenous Land Use Agreement was settled where Rio Tinto raised Indigenous employment at Argyle, committed to a range of social and cultural programs and continued to pay local communities for access to the mining lease.

Two years later studies showed Rio Tinto was the dominant employer of Indigenous people in the east Kimberley, accounting for 25 per cent of employment in the region.

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Employment numbers dropped off in 2009, reducing to less than 10 per cent of the workforce once the mine went underground in 2013.

The diamonds

Once Argyle started mining in 1983, it was soon producing more diamonds than the world had ever seen, including the first steady supply of coveted pinks.

But most of its diamonds were considered industrial. Small and brown, they looked a little like coffee sugar.

At that time, when people bought a diamond, they wanted the classic gin-and-tonic-coloured stone that was largely mined in Africa.

South African cartel De Beers monopolised the diamond industry.

Since the 1940s, De Beers had infiltrated Hollywood with stealth marketing portraying the message that "diamonds were forever" on the big screen.

Andrew Wagstaff, former manager of market development for Argyle diamonds, said De Beers marketing equated diamonds to love, resulting in the ubiquitous diamond engagement ring.

"There was always this argy-bargy going on around the promotion of diamonds because clearly De Beers didn't want Argyle messing around with their marketing messages about diamonds that are big, colourless and gem quality," Mr Wagstaff said.

Mr Wagstaff said De Beers derogatively referred to Argyle's gems as "kangaroo poo".

Argyle's management decided to independently market its share of the stones, rebranding its diamonds with old-world luxury.

Ads for Argyle diamonds.

Supplied: Rio Tinto

What was once a brown or yellow diamond became cognac or champagne.

"We were actually able to trademark the name and get a registered trademark for champagne diamonds in the American market," Mr Wagstaff said.

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To showcase its diamonds, in 1990 Rio Tinto commissioned a jewelled golden egg that travelled the world.

Although brown diamonds were the bulk of production, Argyle was best known for its fairy-floss pinks.

For decades, Argyle staged a pink diamond tender process where a select number of ateliers annually bid for the rare gems.

Viewings took place in some of the most exclusive hotels in the world in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Geneva, Paris, London and New York.

Whereas the pinks were destined for the jewellery of royalty and Hollywood, Argyle pushed its cheaper diamonds into the thousands of malls springing up in the United States at the time.

The cheaper diamonds destined for US retail chains were cut and polished in India.

"All of this jewellery ends up in Macy's, JCPenneys and the Walmarts of the world," said Nirupa Bhatt, former manager of Argyle's Indian representative office.

"Argyle democratised the diamonds because it became affordable; someone who could only spend $99 could buy a diamond jewel."

But for diamond collectors and investors, the legacy of the Argyle mine will always be its distinct pink gems.

The famous pinks.

Supplied: Linneys, Rio Tinto and Australian diamond portfolio

Christies' auctioneer Max Fawcett has handled some the world's most expensive pink stones.

"Over the past 20 years, 10 years even, collectors have been rewarded very handsomely for investing their money into these pink diamonds," he said.

"The prices have gone up exponentially.

"Since 2000, if I'm not mistaken, the price of pinks at Argyle tender went up 600 per cent."

The future

But now, after 37 years of mining, the source of the diamonds has dried up.

And what happens with the Argyle site hangs in the balance.

Kia Dowell says there are mixed feelings in the community about the closure of the mine.

"Some feel like it's a good thing because we have seen early signs of a dependence, like an unhealthy dependence to some extent on Rio," she said.

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"It does mean that with Argyle closing, now we have traditional owners who have to leave country for opportunities."

Rio Tinto is in negotiations with traditional owners about the end-of-mine agreement.

Sticking points are the time it will take to rehabilitate the mine site and what Rio Tinto will leave behind.

The five-year process of removing mine infrastructure and reshaping the land is underway.

Revegetation work to encourage regrowth of the natural ecosystem has begun.

This mediation is further complicated because native title is yet to be determined.

And traditional owners say they don't have clarity on what the government plans to sign off on.

Kia Dowell is a main player in these negotiations.

For her, the end-of-mine talks are deeply personal.

Her parents met one another working at Argyle in the early days of the mine.

When she was in early 20s, after returning from playing college basketball in the United States, her grandmother took her to one side.

"I distinctly remember her saying, 'OK, you've had your time, now you've had your fun, we let you go. Now you've got to come back and it's time for you to help us,'" Kia said.

"'And you're going to work for this mining company [Rio Tinto], because you need to go and learn about how they think.'"

Kia did and after completing a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and working in community relations for the miner, she is now on the other side of the negotiating table.

"I'm not going to sit here and pretend like we're all standing in a circle, or sitting around a campfire, hugging it out, because we're not," she said.

"There has certainly been a shift in the attitude and, unfortunately, a lot of that occurred as a result of what happened at Juukan [Gorge in WA's Pilbara].

"It's really unfortunate that it had to take something like that for the leadership of Rio Tinto to hold a mirror up to themselves."

Rio Tinto is keenly aware that the reputational damage caused by the Juukan cave destruction has put a global spotlight on the state of its relations with the traditional owners on the land that it mines.

Sinéad Kaufman is in charge of Rio Tinto's global diamond business and one of the key representatives in the end-of-mine negotiations with traditional owners.

"From a reputation perspective, doing it right has always been a priority," she said.

"And I think after Juukan, it really is important that we demonstrate that commitment even more."

Kia Dowell is chairperson of the Gelganyem Trust, which was set up to distribute funds from Rio Tinto to traditional owners.

She said now that mining had stopped, the income stream to the community had ceased.

But the work of the trust continues as it's the primary mechanism for the voices of traditional owners in the end-of-mine-agreement negotiations with government and Rio Tinto.

Traditional owners are heavily involved in environmental rehabilitation work on the mine site, including the seed program. Once the work stops, so too will this source of income.

Indigenous contractors are involved in work to rehabilitate the mine site.

Supplied: Timbee Photography

Kia Dowell said it was hard to fathom now that Rio Tinto was not required to outline in detail its plans for Argyle once it stopped mining.

The government requires Rio Tinto to set out details of its plans for rehabilitation and decommissioning at least six months in advance.

"One of the first things I did before we even started this negotiation period around mine closure was to ask the community, 'What is your memory of this?'" Kia said.

"In no uncertain terms, it was a very consistent, long, community memory, that what went into country came out of country."

Underground, rock bolts remain in place to stop the mine collapsing on itself.

Kia Dowell said, as the underground was a sacred women's site, it was important this infrastructure was removed.

"We fully recognise their concerns around what was left underground," Sinéad Kaufman said.

"But … the realities of mining are that we have to leave some behind to maintain safety.

"There's a lot more work to do around removing infrastructure that's buried on the site, which is also very important, because that is still underground from their [traditional owners'] perspective.

"And also removing other buildings and working on what the particularly key traditional sites in the area look like at the end of mine life.

"So [there's] still a bit of work to do," Sinéad said.

Rock art at the Argyle mine site.

Supplied: Timbee Photography

University of Western Australia archaeologist Sven Ouzman said the area where the Argyle mine sat was littered with traditional sites.

But he said when Argyle started mining in the 1980s, this type of archaeological mapping was not a priority.

"Juukan was 43,000 years old," he said. "We've dated a site not far from Argyle, about 250 kilometres away, to 50,000 years.

"Also to stress it is not just old sites that matter, more recent sites can have very strong social connections and can matter more to traditional owners than the old sites that excite many archaeologists."

Sinéad Kaufman said the end-of-mine agreement was going through its final approvals with the WA government.

The chief executive of the Department of Water and Environmental Regulation has the final sign-off.

Yet traditional owners say the talks are far from over.

"My advice to both Rio and the state would be to plan for further discussions, particularly on the premise that native title has not been determined," Kia Dowell said.

"It would be negligent of both Rio and the state to end negotiations based on a timeline that has not been endorsed by traditional owners, let alone native title holders."

Mine closure is an expensive business. It's hard to find precise figures on what's involved at Argyle.

A note in Rio Tinto's annual report earmarks $700 million for decommissioning the ERA uranium mine and Gove Alumina refinery in the Northern Territory, as well as Argyle, in 2022 alone.

Traditional owners represented by the Gelganyem Trust.

Supplied: Timbee Photography

Rio Tinto plans to provide compensation to Argyle traditional owners through a sustainability fund.

"There's a legacy there, longer term for the traditional owners, but also for their kids and grandkids and making sure the benefits of Argyle flow through to future generations," Sinéad Kaufman said.

Rio Tinto plans to hand the land back to the traditional owners in 2035.

But Kia Dowell said that was way too soon.

"Our perspective is 10 years is not long enough. That mine site has been there for 30 years, at least.

"You need at least 30 on the other side of that to be adequately convinced that we got it right.

"We're not convinced that the people who are coming up with these plans have spent 10 wet seasons at that site to really understand the impact of a big wet.

"What happens if the open pit floods? What happens if the tailings [dam] bursts?

"We've tried to challenge the approach … to ensure that Rio themselves are satisfied that they're handing country back to traditional owners [and] that [it] is not going to be an environmental risk in two generations' time.

"Because if we're not careful … Argyle could be the next Juukan from an environmental-impact point of view."

Listen to the Expanse: Pink Diamond Heist podcast.


  • Reporting:
  • Photography and video: Andrew Seabourne, Sharon Gordon, Timbee Photography, Rio Tinto
  • Digital production:

Mexico. Ten minors blocked in a well, the emergency services engaged in a time trial .
© Antonio Ojeda / EPA / MAXPPP of the members of the National Guard monitor the area where a coal mine collapsed in the municipality of Sabinas , in the state of Coahuila, Mexico, August 3, 2022. A coal mine collapsed in northeast Mexico this Wednesday evening. The authorities are busy saving the ten minors that have remained blocked at the bottom.

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