Traditional owners in Western Australia’s Pilbara region have been left reeling after mining giant Rio Tinto (ASX: RIO) legally destroyed one of the country’s oldest known Aboriginal heritage sites as part of its expansion of the Brockman 4 iron ore mine.
A Rio spokesperson has confirmed to media that blasting occurred over the weekend in the Juukan Gorge, a culturally significant site with history dating back more than 46,000 years, and ancient rock shelters were destroyed.
In an ironic twist, the blast happened just days before National Sorry Day, which on Tuesday marked the annual recognition of Australia’s mistreatment of its indigenous people and forms part of an ongoing reconciliation process.
The spokesperson for the mining giant said Rio obtained ministerial consent back in 2013 to conduct activity at the Brockman 4 mine “that would impact Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelters”.
Although since ministerial consent was given, artefacts have been found in the rock shelters during subsequent archaeological digs.
In particular, a 2014 excavation discovered a 28,000-year old pointed tool made from bone as well as grinding and pounding stones that are believed to be the earliest known uses of grindstone technology in WA.
Archaeologists also recovered a 4,000-year-old plaited hair belt that contained DNA linked to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) and Pinikura people of today.
A site of major cultural significance
PKK Land Committee chairman John Ashburton has expressed frustration over the lack of flexibility of WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972), which does not consider new information after consent has been granted.
“There are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one and we know from archaeological studies that it is one of the earliest occupied locations not only on the western Hamersley Plateau, but also in the Pilbara and nationally. Its importance cannot be underestimated,” he said in a statement.
One PKK traditional owner Burchell Hayes told media his people “were devastated the lessons from the Jukkan Gorge site can never be passed onto future generations”.
“It saddens us that something that we have got a deep connection to has been destroyed,” he said.
However, Mr Hayes acknowledged the actions could not be reversed “but what we can do is try and go back to Rio Tinto and talk to them on how we can protect the remaining sites in that area”.
‘Out-of-date’ heritage act
WA’s McGowan government announced a review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act in 2018 with the state’s treasurer and aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt calling the current act “out-of-date, inefficient and ineffective”.
Mr Wyatt has said the lack of regulatory flexibility is an issue that will be covered by new state heritage legislation this year, with the review process expected to resume once coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
Brockman 4 mine
The Brockman 4 iron ore mine, located 60km northwest of Tom Price in WA’s Pilbara region, has been operating since 2010.
It is part of Rio’s Greater Brockman hub operations that include the nearby Brockman 2 mine in the Hamersley Range, one of the world’s major iron ore provinces.
According to the company’s 2019 annual report, the Brockman 4 mine (which comprises ore from the Brockman and Marra Mamba deposits) currently holds an estimated 345 million tonnes in total ore reserves including 264Mt or proved reserves grading at 62.3 carats per tonne of iron.
Blasting at the Juukan Gorge related to plans to expand operations.
Rio’s relationship with traditional owners
According to a Rio spokesperson, the miner has been working with traditional owners in the Juukan area for 17 years.
“Rio Tinto has worked constructively together with the PKKP (Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura) people on a range of heritage matters and has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance,” the company stated.
A native title agreement was signed with the traditional owners in 2011, prior to Rio’s ministerial consent to conduct mine expansion operations.
The company has acknowledged that many of its operations are on or near land that is “sacred to many, including indigenous communities”.
“We recognise the cultural, spiritual and physical connections that Indigenous people often have with land, water, flora and fauna. We are committed to working in a way that respects their rights and reflects their perspectives,” it said.
The company claims it has implemented, monitored and reported against more than 4,000 commitments under land use agreements with traditional owners.
“The commitments differ across operations and traditional owner groups but range from early involvement in planning for mines through to employment outcomes and the delivery of cultural awareness training,” it stated.
National Reconciliation Week
National Reconciliation Week started on Wednesday and runs to 3 June 2020.
In a statement on Tuesday, Mr Wyatt announced this year’s tagline ‘In This Together’ and encouraged Western Australians to commemorate the event digitally, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During National Reconciliation Week, we encourage all Western Australians to listen to the voices of members of our council, together with Aboriginal elders, leaders, youth and communities, as they share their stories, perspectives and discuss opportunities for reconciliation,” he said.
“Western Australia’s response to the COVID pandemic provided an opportunity to reflect on critical reconciliation themes including mutual respect, acknowledgement and partnerships,” Mr Wyatt added.