Indigenous Australians file rights complaint over gas projects

Traditional landowners say pension funds have obligation to prevent ‘adverse human rights impacts’ from energy projects.

Australian energy company Santos is developing the Barossa and Narrabri gas projects, which Indigenous communities say will damage the environment and their culture [File: Jason Reed/Reuters]

A group of Indigenous Australians has filed a human rights complaint against 20 large Australian pension funds for investing in two of Santos Ltd’s gas projects, putting pressure on the funds over their fossil fuel investment plans.

Three traditional landowners alleged in the complaint, filed on Wednesday directly with the superannuation funds, that the funds had an “obligation to prevent adverse human rights impacts of companies in which they are invested”.

Indigenous communities alleged the Barossa and Narrabri gas projects will threaten their culture, livelihood, and risk damage to the environment, including affecting the breeding patterns and nesting grounds of animals.

A member in one of the funds has requested information under an Australian corporations law that requires the fund to provide its reasons for investing in Santos and justify the benefits, the complaint showed.

Environmental, social and governance issues have increasingly influenced investors in funds and companies, including forcing management changes at miner Rio Tinto after it destroyed culturally significant rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia for an iron ore mine in 2020.

Santos did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment but has previously said it undertakes consultation with all key stakeholders for all of its projects.

Commonwealth Super Corp, AustralianSuper, Australian Retirement Trust, Aware Super and AMP – the five largest pension funds – did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment. The 20 funds collectively manage more than A$1.7 trillion (US$1.13 trillion).

The move from the Indigenous landowners comes after the Gomeroi people in January filed an appeal to the Australian Federal Court on a permit for the A$3.6bn (US$2.4bn) Narrabri gas project in the state of New South Wales. The National Native Title Tribunal in December had permitted Santos to go ahead with the project.

“We will not allow [the environment] to be damaged or desecrated to a point where it will not return to its natural state,” Karra Kinchela, a Gomeroi traditional landowner, said in Wednesday’s statement.

An appeal by Santos to resume drilling on its A$3.6bn (US$2.4bn) Barossa gas project off northern Australia was rejected by the federal court in December after Indigenous groups raised objections.

Santos then said it would apply for new approvals for its biggest project in line with the court’s order.

Source: Reuters