Failed Heritage Laws Let Rio Tinto Destroy An Ancient Aboriginal Site

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46,000 year old cave sites in WA’s Juukan Gorge, which belong to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples, have been destroyed by mining giant Rio Tinto.

These sites of immense significance were legally destroyed in a single controlled blast, because of an unfair piece of legislation.

I want to figure out how something so important could be destroyed in Australia in 2020, and whether it could happen again.

What actually happened at Juukan Gorge?

Kathryn Przywolnik: “So Juukan Gorge is a very culturally important place and is located right in the centre of Pilbara – which is in the middle of the iron ore … part of Australia.”

That’s Kathryn Przywolnik, an archeologist and heritage manager for the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation.

KP: “Mining companies generally or, quite often, lay out explosives so they can break up the ground and then get to the ore that’s underneath. And that’s what’s happened at Jukkan.”

The mining company in this story is Rio Tinto. It’s the world’s second largest mining corporation and it outwardly prides itself on working alongside First Nations communities to preserve cultural heritage.

Since March, the company has been in major damage control mode, and even admitted its mistake in a rare public apology.

Heaps of people are still furious over why they were allowed to break ground at this site in the first place and are demanding mining operations to be halted in the Pilbara region.

Technically, the destruction of Juukan Gorge wasn’t illegal and it’s actually happening to heaps of other sacred sites in the region, because of one very old piece of legislation.

KP: “The Aboriginal Heritage Act is the state legislation that was put in place to protect and preserve important Aboriginal cultural sites for the benefit of Aboriginal people and for the broader Australian public.”

The Act was made in 1972. It’s made up of lots of sections, most of which appear to try to adhere to the overarching goal of protecting sacred sites. But there’s a loophole in Section 18, which says that if there’s going to be unavoidable impact to the site, consent can be granted by the Minister for Indigenous Australians.

KP: “In the last 5 years … the minister has approved more than 400 Section 18 consent forms for mining purposes and has refused none. It’s a frustrating situation in Western Australia, that the same laws intended to preserve sites are most often used to destroy those same sites.”

Under Section 18, notice must be given to traditional land owners of the land before mining can proceed.

Now a senate inquiry is trying to figure out why this didn’t happen when Rio Tinto was given the all-clear on the Juukan Gorge site, which happened back in 2013.

Rio Tinto is blaming a communication breakdown within the business, but many are pointing to the $135 million dollars’ worth of iron ore as the more obvious reason for this tragedy.

It’s even been suggested that Rio Tinto had plenty of time to change their plans, and were fully aware of the importance of the site and what they were doing.

The media response to the Rio Tinto disaster has been huge. But Kathryn told me that it’s actually quite unusual to have such sustained interest in the loss of First Nations cultural heritage. She said that the public response to Juukan Gorge is breaking new ground.

In the wake of the disaster, the WA Government has announced draft planning for a new Heritage Act – something that really should’ve happened long ago.

And FMG mining has paused their Section 18 to figure out the best way forward for their land use within the Pilbara region.

Kathryn is hoping that, even without the legislative changes, mining companies will be more conscious of their relationship with traditional land owners – or (at the very least) that public pressure may encourage them to act in good faith.

The Takeaway

KP: “A lot of Aboriginal people feel, and take the view, that mining companies are guests on their traditional country, and they are not going to be there forever. But it’s what they are going to leave behind – and whether it’s a good legacy or whether it’s a very poor legacy – that people feel is the big difference.”