Australia still favours profit over aboriginal heritage

In May last year, the giant mining company Rio Tinto made headline news after blasting the Aboriginal sacred site Jukaan Gorge in Pilbara, in its expansion of its iron ore mine. The Australian government’s official consent to the destruction was given to Rio Tinto in 2013 and despite historical evidence being uncovered a year later, including artefacts and links to ancestral heritage, no renegotiation was made, because the Aboriginal Heritage Act does not allow for reconsideration.

Efforts to change the law, which favours mining corporations, have been deferred since 2012. Proposed amendments in 2014 elicited protests among the Indigenous communities due to lack of consultation with the Indigenous people and the absence of avenues for appeal against mining projects.

At that time, the opposition spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Ben Wyatt had stated, “Aboriginal heritage isn’t something for the Government to bequeath to Aboriginal people. It’s been there well before the Government came along here in Western Australia.”

Wyatt’s record, however, isn’t pro-Indigenous. In 2017, Wyatt approved the destruction of 50 Aboriginal sites which are sacred to the Winatwari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) without consulting the traditional owners. The WGAC holds the native title to land in Pilbara, in which 40% of Rio Tinto’s iron ore mines are located.

Wyatt will be joining Rio Tinto’s board as Indigenous director in September—a move which Wyatt says will increase Indigenous representation but which other activists and individuals have criticised. Australian Labor Senator Pat Dodson’s scathing criticism pointed out Wyatt’s involvement in the destruction of Aboriginal heritage sites. “Rio Tinto may think it’s bought respectability by appointing Mr Wyatt, but Aboriginal people—especially those whose sacred sites are endangered by mining—will rightly be sceptical,” Dodson stated.

Indeed, Rio Tinto will need more than Wyatt’s appointment to salvage its public image. News reports this month revealed that the mining company has not yet paid compensation to the Puuti Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) for the destruction of Jukaan Gorge. In December 2020, an interim report into the destruction recommended that Rio Tinto should finance and reconstruct the Jukaan Gorge shelters. So far, no financial compensation has been made by the company and the Jukaan Gorge shelters have only been partially rehabilitated.

The WGAC have also requested that royalties are paid by Rio Tinto as compensation for Aboriginal heritage destruction, while the PKKP have requested a co-management system with Rio Tinto when it comes to Aboriginal ancestral lands.

Jukaan Gorge may be the most visible predicament for Rio Tinto, however, the company is also facing additional backlash over the deliberate destruction of Aboriginal artefacts in the Marandoo mine in the 1990s.

The WGAC has alleged that Rio Tinto deliberately destroyed hundreds of Aboriginal artefacts stored in 66 large bags, which were disposed of in a rubbish dump in Darwin. The Marandoo mine approval was granted by Western Australia’s federal government in 1992, on condition that it would salvage and protect Indigenous burial sites and artefacts. With Rio Tinto unaccountable for heritage protection, 40,000 years of Aboriginal heritage were destroyed or lost, in collaboration with Western Australia’s federal government. Heritage workers evaluating the proposed mining site were obstructed by the mining company from conducting thorough surveys.

Rio Tinto may claim it is “not proud of many parts of our history at Marandoo,” but legislation has so far favoured giant corporations and their exploitation of land. The proposed Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill is not perceived as safeguarding Indigenous rights—Aboriginals have no right to veto and the final decisions over land exploitation rest with the government. An equal right to review does not translate as equality if Indigenous people’s concerns come secondary to profit.

This article originally appeared in Strategic Culture Foundation on-line journal.

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. Her writing covers a range of themes in relation to Palestine, Chile and Latin America.

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