Indigenous Australians have joined forces with a Chinese company on a new mining venture off the coast of the Northern Territory (NT).
The Anindilyakwa people of Groote Eylandt, the largest island in the Gulf of Carpentaria off the NT's east coast, have applied for approval to begin exploration drilling for a potential manganese mine on the nearby Winchester Island.
The traditional owners have established Winchelsea Mining Pty Ltd., a joint venture with AUS China International Mining, to operate the proposed mine.
"We are in uncharted waters," Mark Hewitt, chief executive of the Anindilyakwa Land Council (ALC), told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
"Under the Land Rights Act, it is not contemplated that you actually become an applicant to mine on your own land.
"Normally you are a passive royalty recipient to a third party who comes in and hands royalties out."
The partnership with AUS China International Mining was formed after Hewitt and Tony Wurramarrba, chairman of the ALC, met investors during a trade visit to China organized by the NT government.
"It's early days yet, but potentially, this is a real gamechanger," Hewitt said.
It comes as Groote Eylandt Mining Company (GEMCO) mine, which is owned by Western Australian mining company South32, approaches the end of its operational life. It is expected to run out of manganese within 11 years.
The Anindilyakwa people have received millions of dollars in royalties from South32, which has been used to fund programs and services on the island.
Michael Gunner, chief minister of the NT, said that if the mine goes ahead after being subject to "normal regulatory processes," it would be crucial for the future of the Anindilyakwa people.
"If this mine gets up and it is successful, it puts money into a trust fund here on the island and the interest off that will help sustain their future," Gunner said.