Professor Wayne Bergmann's address to the 11th Annual Aboriginal Economic Development Forum held in Darwin this week illustrated a damning gap between the promises made by resource companies and their actions.
Prof. Bergmann, a proud Nyikina man, leading entrepreneur and Executive Chairman of the National Indigenous Times, unveiled a stark mismatch between one company's public commitments to Aboriginal engagement and the reality of the benefits for Traditional Owners.
Prof. Bergmann's analysis of promises made by Kimberley Mineral Sands regarding their Thunderbird project revealed an unsettling narrative.
Thunderbird sits within the Joombarn Buru Native title determination area on the Mount Jowlaenga and Yeeda pastoral leases and spans both the Shires of Derby-West Kimberley and Broome local government areas.
Highlighting Kimberley Mineral Sand's use of their Native Title agreement as a mark of social responsibility, Prof. Bergmann challenges the depth of these commitments.
"Kimberley Mineral Sands say they are meeting their targets, but these numbers are not scrutinised by Traditional Owners," he said.
"The process to ensure transparency of outcomes when it relates to Traditional Owners engagement should not be the responsibility of the company's saying how good they do.
"The Northern Australia Infrastructure Fund (NAIF) has a responsibility to vet these outcomes to see if in fact they are achieving the social impact investment companies are claiming"
Prof Bergmann said that "the reality is, KMS' Traditional Owner engagement is a mere 0.7 of a percent".
"NAIF has no clue what is going on and can't really vet the details unless there is transparency with Traditional Owners, the very people the Thunderbird project is meant to benefit," he noted.
The criticism goes to the core of what constitutes meaningful engagement, focusing on the need to create meaningful economic foundations for Traditional Owners.
Prof. Bergmann called out the superficial nature of corporate 'engagement' that is high on promises but fails in delivering real economic progression.
"You can't just hold up the flag and say you are employing Aboriginal people... The sleeping giant in the room is Aboriginal people participating in the economy," he said.
Through the keynote address to the AEDF, Prof. Bergmann underscored the transformation required in corporate interactions with Aboriginal communities.
It's an urgent call for a shift from shallow engagements to substantial contributions that significantly enhance the economic position of traditional owners, ensuring that Aboriginal people are integral to the economy.
"If you really believe in Aboriginal economic independence, then we have to encourage investors to walk with us and invest with us," he said.