Indigenous Australians urge pension funds to stop gas company’s “trail of destruction”

Gomeroi Traditional Owners Karra Kinchela and Miah Wright in Pilliga Forest, New South Wales.
Gomeroi Traditional Owners Karra Kinchela and Miah Wright in Pilliga Forest, New South Wales. Copyright Rachel Deans/Market Forces
Copyright Rachel Deans/Market Forces
By Lottie LimbReuters
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Traditional Owners of three First Nations are putting pressure on the pension funds over their fossil fuel investment plans with Santos.


A group of Indigenous Australians have filed a human rights complaint against 20 large pension funds over their investments in two “catastrophic” gas projects.

The traditional landowners of the Tiwi Islands near Darwin, and the Pilliga Forest northwest of Sydney, claim the funds have an “obligation to prevent adverse human rights impacts of companies in which they are invested.”

Oil and gas giant Santos is seeking to extract gas from these culturally and environmentally significant areas, under its Barossa and Narrabri projects.

“We will not allow [the forest] to be damaged or desecrated to a point where it will not return to its natural state,” says Karra Kinchela, a Gomeroi Traditional Owner. “With at least 90 cultural sites, the most abundant wildlife and biodiversity, there is no other place like it in Australia.”

Tiwi Islander, Larrakia and Gomeroi First Nations peoples - represented by Equity Generation Lawyers - have filed their complaint directly with the superannuation funds. They are joined by members of the funds who have requested information about their investments.

Australia’s top 20 super funds, including AustralianSuper, REST Super and Hostplus, collectively manage more than €1 trillion of members’ retirement savings.

Environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues have increasingly influenced investors in funds and companies. In 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto was forced to make management changes after it destroyed sacred rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia for an iron ore mine.

What environmental damage could Santos’s projects cause?

Rachel Parker/Market Forces
Munupi clan elder Pirrawayingi Puruntatameri. Tiwi Islanders fear the Barossa project could be harmful to sea animals and other wildlife.Rachel Parker/Market Forces

Indigenous communities say 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.

The Barossa project, worth around €2.15 billion, is an offshore gas production project northwest of Darwin that will supply an onshore liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility via a 385km undersea pipeline. It aims to start delivering LNG in 2025.

Of a similar value, the Narrabri project is a coal seam gas venture that could provide half of New South Wales’s gas needs once operational, National Indigenous Television (NITV) reports.

But the projects risk spills, pipeline eruptions and “devastating impacts” on the local environment according to Market Forces, an affiliate project of Friends of the Earth Australia, which is assisting the complaints.

Precious wildlife including threatened marsupials, endangered birds, dugong, turtles and other sea animals all stand to suffer if the projects go ahead, it adds.

“If Santos gets its way with the Narrabri gas project, enabled by investments from Australia’s super funds, they will pollute our sacred water that sustains all life,” adds Miah Wright, another Gomeroi Traditional Owner.

Antonia Burke, Indigenous human rights advocate from the Tiwi Islands alleges that the oil and gas major has “left a trail of destruction” across the country.

How likely are the Barossa and Narrabri gas projects to go ahead?

Santos, which stands for South Australia Northern Territory Oil Search, is a leading oil and gas producers in the Asia-Pacific region.DAVID GRAY/Reuters

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 Narrabri gas project. The National Native Title Tribunal in December had permitted Santos to go ahead with the project.

An appeal by Santos to resume drilling on its 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 fresh approvals for its biggest project in line with the court's order.

Will van de Pol, acting executive director of Market Forces, says that the pension funds must ensure Santos upholds the human rights of Traditional Owners or else dump their investments.


“It’s in the best interest of super fund members, Traditional Owners and the climate to stop these catastrophic gas projects going ahead.”

Jenny Bennett, a member of one of the implicated superannuation funds Aware Super, says “I can only fiercely raise my opposition to such investments, particularly when I think of our two grandchildren, (three and seven), who will be dealing with the dire consequences of continual fossil fuel reliance.”

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 involved - did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.

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