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Best-practice engagement with First Nations peoples on renewable energy projects

As the race to net zero continues across Australia, new plans for renewable energy projects present a crucial need for best-practice consultation with First Nations peoples to create sustainable opportunities and equitable outcomes for communities.

The Water Services Association of Australia and the Energy Charter facilitated another Community of Practice webinar in March, this time delving into Leading Practice Principles: First Nations and Renewable Energy Projects – the first comprehensive national guide on First Nations engagement, participation and benefit-sharing for renewable energy projects.

Developed in partnership between the Clean Energy Council, the First Nations Clean Energy Network and KPMG, and informed by significant consultation with First Nations peoples and community leaders, the guide aims to support better engagement with communities across onshore and offshore wind farms, solar, hydroelectricity facilities, new large-scale storage projects and renewable hydrogen projects.

The guide includes 10 principles to place First Nations peoples and communities at the centre of the development, design, implementation and benefit sharing of medium- and large-scale renewable energy projects and to negotiate strong outcomes for communities.

Co-hosted by TasNetworks Aboriginal Community Engagement Advisor Graeme Gardner and Yarra Valley Water Aboriginal Partnerships Manager Nina Braid, webinar participants heard from KPMG Indigenous Services Lead Partner Glen Brennan, and KPMG Banarra Human Rights and Social Impact Director Mel Sutton.

Brennan said the guide is all about ensuring First Nations people are not only included and consulted appropriately on new renewable energy projects, but also to create opportunities for First Nations communities to benefit sustainably from projects developed on their Country.

“We don’t want this guide to sit on the shelf. We want it to create a level of expectation, both for the proponents looking to do projects and for our mob. It’s about Traditional Owner groups having a documented standard in terms of how they expect to be treated and included,” he said.

“At the end of the day, this is about doing better. It’s about companies mitigating risks and negative impacts on communities, and creating shared value, where proponents and Traditional Owners all enjoy the benefits that these projects bring.

“It’s about making sure this work is done in a way in genuine partnership with First Nations, ensuring they’re included at the right stages and levels, and ensuring mechanisms to make sure their voices are heard.”

Doing better

The 10 principles have been informed by extensive consultation with First Nations communities, with key challenges and concerns driving the development of the guide. Brennan said a lack of cultural awareness is a key issue, as well as the legacy of exclusive resource projects.

“Many proponents come in open to learning, but the reality is that there’s still a low level of cultural awareness within the renewable energy sector,” he said.

“Cultural awareness is crucial, but particularly within the context of resource extraction projects. First Nations people didn't enjoy any of the benefits of these projects in the past, mobs have in many cases been deliberately excluded.

“There is also a strong history of tick-a-box engagement, leaving First Nations people feeling like they have been informed, rather than engaged to create more value for everyone involved. Change in project ownership is an issue, too, which can create a lot of confusion.”

Brennan said there is also a significant need to ensure communities have the resources and capacity to engage, with some Traditional Owners groups expected to manage dozens of different project proposals at the same time.

“Our mobs want to do this to represent their views and create opportunities for their community, but the capacity and capability of Traditional Owners organisations doesn’t always enable them to put their best foot forward,” he said.

“Communities often feel besieged with the level of expectation from community, as well as the expectation from proponents.”

What’s more, Brennan said there is also a general distrust in the continuity of the benefits provided to communities, which is an area of project planning that requires significant attention.

“One particular Elder expressed to me that she was concerned about the sustainability of these projects. In the past, some projects have been a sugar hit. They'll come in, they'll employ community members to build the project, there will be jobs for a couple of years, and when the build ends the jobs and financial benefits end, too.”

10 principles

Presenting the 10 principles within the guide during the webinar, Sutton said incorporating the principles and practices into operations and decision-making will help companies mitigate negative impacts.

“But, importantly, it will also create shared benefits through genuine partnership with First Nations communities to achieve the clean energy future that we're all striving for,” she said.

The guide’s 10 principles for leading practice are:

  1. Engage respectfully
  2. Prioritise clear, accessible and accurate information
  3. Ensure cultural heritage is preserved and protected
  4. Protect Country and environment
  5. Be a good neighbour
  6. Ensure economic benefits are shared
  7. Provide social benefits for community
  8. Embed land stewardship
  9. Ensure cultural competency
  10. Implement, monitor and report back

“Engaging respectfully means engaging early and regularly by obtaining the free prior informed consent of First Nations communities for any projects on their lands,” Sutton said.

“It means conducting negotiations fairly and in good faith, and respecting the local governance and decision-making processes of First Nations communities.

“Providing as much information as early as possible is really critical for First Nations communities to be in a position to make informed decisions about projects. And that includes working with First Nations communities to understand the communication methods and the engagement processes that work best for their communities.”

Sutton said ensuring economic benefits are shared includes creating employment and procurement opportunities, but also co-ownership and equity sharing arrangements.

“There's a really significant opportunity for economic empowerment for First Nations communities throughout the energy transition, but this really needs to be tailored to the specific local context in which those renewable energy projects are being developed,” she said.

“We also need to make sure projects are providing social benefits that meet the aspirations, priorities and needs of First National communities. The delivery of social benefits really needs to be baked into project governance and review arrangements to make sure that those benefits are in fact delivered and that they continue to meet the needs and aspirations of the local community.

“Monitoring is required to make sure that all commitments made to First Nations communities are documented, regularly reported on and embedded within the governance arrangements of the project. Likewise, reporting back to the community on progress of those commitments supports relationship development and building trust with the First Nations communities.”

Brennan said many of the principles and practices recommended in the guide will require continued and purposeful effort, including dedicated resourcing and funding, but that this time and money is an investment, not an expense.

“It’s actually good practice to share what you can in a way that's easily digestible to make sure that you are keeping First Nations people as informed as you can of the information you can provide,” he said.

“It takes time and it takes additional investment to be able to do this work properly. Lack of appropriate investment it's going to create delays and confusion further down the track, where it becomes really costly. Doing this work properly from the start will actually save companies money.”

Interested in learning more about Leading Practice Principles: First Nations and Renewable Energy Projects? Access the guide here.