‘Sorry For Blowing Up Your Culture’, And Other Things Rio Tinto Says But Doesn’t Mean

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The recent destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites in Western Australia by an Australian mining giant should outrage us all, writes Georgia McGrath.

If you visit Rio Tinto’s website, you can download a fun diagram of the mining process in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. It’s got little graphics of diggers and trains that would delight my three-year-old nephew.

Step one in mine operations is titled “drill and blast” – pick a spot for your mine, drill some holes, stuff them with explosives and then blast 46,000 years of human history to smithereens. Now go dig up some iron ore!

Rio Tinto confirmed last week that it had literally blown up several sacred Indigenous sites in the Hammersley Ranges, destroying ancient caves in Juukan Gorge. Excavations of those caves had uncovered astounding evidence of continual human occupation dating back to before the last Ice Age, including grinding and pounding stones which are believed to be the earliest use of such technology in Western Australia. By all accounts, the Juukan Gorge caves were uniquely rich in history.

To describe the site as culturally significant for the Puutu Kunti Kurruma and Pinikura people feels inadequate. One artefact recovered from the site was a length of plaited hair from the heads of people who lived in the area 4,000 years ago. DNA testing of the hair confirmed that those people were the direct ancestors of the traditional owners living on the land today, proof that the caves had sheltered their people and been the guardian of their culture long before iron ore was thought of.

That rich heritage is now dust.  

It is a heartbreaking and irreparable loss for the traditional owners of the land. It impoverishes human history. Our world is now so much less culturally rich for the loss of these sites.

Here’s the surprise: Rio Tinto was completely within its legal rights to blow up Juukan Gorge and in fact had been given the green light by the WA government.

The mining giant was granted ministerial consent in 2013 to conduct activity that had the potential to destroy the Juukan Gorge caves, under a provision of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act which allows the government to consent to the unavoidable destruction of an Aboriginal site (which is otherwise an offence).

This catastrophe was a premediated desecration, rubber stamped by government.

The Act is under review and one of the proposed reforms would provide options to appeal or amend agreements sanctioning activities that could damage sacred sites where new information comes to light. Had this right already existed, the Juukan Gorge caves may have been saved.

It was only after the WA government consented to Rio Tinto’s activities in 2013 that salvage digs in the Juukan Gorge uncovered the truth about the length of human occupation of the site. Despite its importance, traditional owners had no avenue to have the Minister’s previous decision re-examined.

There is widespread apathy towards protection of Indigenous sites throughout our land rights legislation, including our native title regime. A grant of native title doesn’t give native title holders a right to block development or mining on their lands, only the right to negotiate with a party interested in their land.

All traditional owners can do is hope that their sacred sites aren’t located on top of an iron ore deposit because there’s very little to stand between a mining company and that resource.

Our land rights legislation is rife with weak language around the obligation on mining companies and the like to “have regard to” the interests of local Indigenous groups.

It’s a shield made of smoke and supposedly good intentions. It enables companies to pursue tactics of “progress first, apologise second” unchecked. Rio Tinto this week gave an apology to traditional owners that essentially amounted to “whoopsie!”.

It was also revealed that traditional owners had contacted Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt shortly before the blast occurred to request that he step in to prevent the destruction. Ken Wyatt did nothing but helpfully pointed out after the fact that the sites couldn’t be replaced.

Yes, Mr Wyatt, no amount of fawning, expressions of regret or vague promises of reform will undo the effects of our government’s vast indifference to the protection of Indigenous history.

Rio Tinto released a statement that it had “where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts” on Juukan Gorge. Well, bully for you, Rio Tinto, but it clearly wasn’t practicable to have regard for anything but profits.

The loss of the Juukan Gorge caves will be felt across generations of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It reveals Rio Tinto’s endorsement of the Uluru Statement from the Heart for what it is – hollow insincerity.

In the theme of this year’s Reconciliation Week, we are all in this together. This is a shared loss that we mourn deeply together.

Outdated laws that allow mining companies to obliterate integral parts of our nation’s story with impunity need a second look and soon, while we still have something left to protect.

Then perhaps step one in Rio Tinto’s pamphlet could read something like – does your proposed mine site have intrinsic and unparalleled value to all of humankind?

Yes? Perhaps look elsewhere.

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Georgia McGrath

Georgia McGrath is a lawyer with Marque Lawyers in the Corporate group.

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