The recent news that the Juukan Gorge rockshelters were destroyed by Rio Tinto Iron Ore has brought to the fore the plight of Aboriginal peoples wanting to see their important sites preserved for future generations.
In one blast, 46,000 years of Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples (PKKP) cultural legacy was lost.
The Australian Archaeological Association, a key national professional body for archaeologists in working in Australia, released a statement offering sympathies for the appalling cultural loss, and pointing out the dreadful irony that the destruction should occur during National Reconciliation Week: the theme for 2020 being In This Together.
It is important to note that the destruction of Juukan Gorge was not illegal. Rio Tinto had obtained the permission of the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to destroy the sites back in 2013 through the statutory mechanisms of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA).
It is this permission that Rio Tinto obtained, and this permission Rio Tinto will rely upon to ensure it cannot be prosecuted for destroying the sites in Juukan Gorge some seven years later.
The current Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, consistently points to the outdated and no longer fit for purpose Act as the weak link in this is chain of events. Minister Wyatt was not the Minister at the time, but he is the Minister now.
Minister Wyatt could have, if he was so inclined, exerted his powers to preserve the site.
Even without any action from the Minister, Rio Tinto should have reviewed its plans in light of the momentous discoveries made in Juukan Gorge. That this sorry incident occurred at all is inconsistent with Rio Tinto’s own corporate commitments. In fact, it is interesting in itself to reflect on what can happen when a mining company does not get its way.
Rio Tinto’s history also has a dark chapter of heavy handedness.
In the 1990s a new mine at Marandoo, in WA’s Pilbara region, threatened the destruction of extremely significant and irreplaceable Aboriginal sites. This caused vehement opposition from Traditional Owners who objected to the cultural losses that would occur.
A solution did not appear to be quickly forthcoming, and the Labor Government at the time pushed through a small but powerful piece of legislation that came to be known as the Aboriginal Heritage (Marandoo) Act 1992.
The Marandoo Act 1992 excised the land around Rio Tinto’s mine from the operation of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, and in one stroke removed any legal protection of Aboriginal sites in that area.
The Marandoo Act 1992 is still in force almost 30 years later and Rio Tinto’s Marandoo mine continues to be a law unto itself.
By Dr Kathryn Przywolnik
Dr Kathryn Przywolnik is a former Registrar of Heritage Sites for the WA Government and is currently Heritage Manager at Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation’s heritage consultancy service, Yulur Heritage.