Australia has had a longstanding history of mistreatment toward Aboriginal people which has carried on to today. It came as no surprise when the mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the Juukan Gorges caves, a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cave in Western Australia that dates back to the Ice Age, back in May. There are only a small number of Aboriginal sites that are as old as these caves. To continue to rub salt on open wounds, the blast took place two days before National Sorry Day, a day meant to remember and acknowledge the mistreatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Mining giants like Rio Tinto, BHP, and Fortescue Metal Groups (FMG) are invested in Western Australia’s rich iron-ore regions which ultimately leaves sacred Aboriginal sites at risk. Rio Tinto is not the only mining company to disregard the requests of the Traditional Owners of the land. Last year, BHP, admitted that it was aware that the Aboriginal people did not want their sites disturbed but continued to apply for legal permission to destroy them anyway. BHP submitted an application to destroy aboriginal sites at its $5 billion South Flank iron-ore region. The sites included ceremonial grounds, ochre pits, and rock shelters with evidence of human occupation that dates back at least 10,000 to 15,000 years. In the last 10 years, mining companies have been given legal permission to damage 463 sites.
You might be wondering how these mining giants have been able to get Government approval to destroy such sites. It all comes down to section 18 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act which essentially legalizes the destruction of these sites. Rio Tinto applied for and was granted section 18 approval to destroy the Juukan caves in 2013. The Act benefits mining companies more than the Aboriginal People who have limited rights over their land and heritage sites. Often, nations would sign individual contracts with the mining company that mined on their land, but the companies would manipulate the owners of the land into an agreement with empty promises and restricted rights. A prime example of this is when The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people signed a series of agreements with Rio Tinto, in 2006, which included a clause that the PKKP would not oppose section 18 applications as long as Rio Tinto made “all reasonable attempts” to minimize the impact. The Aboriginal people’s rights are not entirely protected under section 18, and multiple companies are using it as a source of manipulation; they lodge section 18 applications without, or briefly, conducting an Aboriginal Heritage Survey.
More than 100 Aboriginal sacred sites are at risk of being destroyed by these Mining giants against the wishes of the Traditional Owners of the land. The destruction of the Juukan caves was extremely devastating for the PKKP; the only positive is that it shed light on an ongoing issue that is often kept very quiet. Rio Tinto only apologized after there was international backlash – so essentially they apologized because they got caught. Public attention is what has kept these mining companies from further destruction of these sites. BHP halted the destruction of 40 sacred sites amidst the global outcry over the Juukan caves. Rio Tinto, FMG, and BHP have all said that they will not proceed in the destruction of sites without further consultation with the Traditional Owners of the land, but they ultimately retain the final say. Once again leaving the Aboriginal people with limited rights over what happens to their cultural heritage sites. The change needs to come in the form of law reforms.
The Western Australian Government should reconsider the rights of the Aboriginal people by providing them with the right to have the final say; they need to be able to have a veto over section 18 applications. There are also needs to be extensive consultation with the Traditional Owners to mitigate the harm caused to cultural heritage sites before approving section 18 applications to destroy them. These reforms need to protect the rights of Indigenous Australians and their cultural heritage sites. Australia needs to prioritize and put the Aboriginal people first before the money. Money cannot bring back the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge Caves and other indigenous sites after it has been destroyed.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!