A group of Indigenous Australians has lodged a human rights complaint against 20 large Australian pension funds for investing in two of Santos Ltd’s gas projects. The traditional landowners claim that the funds have an “obligation to prevent adverse human rights impacts of companies in which they are invested”. The Barossa and Narrabri gas projects are alleged to threaten Indigenous culture, livelihoods and the environment, including affecting the breeding patterns and nesting grounds of animals. The move follows an appeal by the Gomeroi people in January against a permit for the A$3.6bn Narrabri gas project in New South Wales, which was granted by the National Native Title Tribunal in December. Santos has previously said that it consults with all key stakeholders for all its projects.
The complaint puts pressure on the pension funds over their fossil fuel investment plans. 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.
The five largest pension funds – Commonwealth Super Corp, AustralianSuper, Australian Retirement Trust, Aware Super and AMP – did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The 20 funds collectively manage more than A$1.7tn ($1.13tn).
Santos’ appeal to resume drilling on its A$3.6bn 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.
“We will not allow [the environment] to be damaged or desecrated to a point where it will not return to its natural state,” said Karra Kinchela, a Gomeroi traditional landowner.
The complaint highlights the growing pressure on investors to consider the environmental and social impact of their investments. A recent report by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility found that Australian super funds invested $12.9bn in fossil fuels in 2019, despite the sector’s poor financial performance. The report argued that this was inconsistent with the funds’ obligations to act in the best interests of their members.
The complaint also reflects a broader trend of Indigenous communities using legal action to protect their rights and the environment. In February, the Wangan and Jagalingou people won a landmark case against Indian mining company Adani, which had sought to build a coal mine on their land in Queensland. The court ruled that Adani had failed to obtain the Wangan and Jagalingou people’s consent for the project.
In Canada, Indigenous groups have also been using legal action to challenge fossil fuel projects. In February, the Wet’suwet’en Nation reached an agreement with the Canadian government over a pipeline project that had sparked protests and blockades across the country. Under the agreement, the Wet’suwet’en will have greater control over their land and resources.
The trend towards legal action by Indigenous communities reflects a growing recognition of their rights and the importance of protecting the environment. It also highlights the need for investors to consider the social and environmental impact of their investments, and to engage with Indigenous communities and other stakeholders in a meaningful way.