On 11 June 2020, The Senate referred the ‘Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia’ to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia for inquiry and report by 30 September 2020. As part of the inquiry, the Committee held a public hearing on 7 August 2020 by teleconference with key stakeholders including Rio Tinto, the Federal Government and the Government of Western Australia.
Committee Chair, Warren Entsch, said it was important to find out what happened at Juukan Gorge and explore ways to prevent such incidents occurring again.
“We will be holding extensive consultations with Indigenous stakeholders during the course of the inquiry, and expect to visit the affected sites. To open the inquiry, however, we will be talking to the government and industry stakeholders most concerned with what happened at Juukan Gorge,” Mr Entsch said.
In its submission, Rio Tinto acknowledged that ‘the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters should not have occurred’. Looking at the need for legislative change, it observed that:
“In considering possible changes that should be made to legislative frameworks, contractual agreements and new standards and ways of working, there is a critical and ongoing balance to be struck. On the one hand, it is essential to find more effective and flexible means to escalate and manage concerns regarding the preservation of the unique cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians. On the other, there needs to be a clear and predictable framework to enable long-term investment in, and the efficient operation of, mining projects that contribute so significantly to Australia. In meeting that challenge, governments, as well as the mining industry, Traditional Owners and the wider community all have a vital contribution to make.”
Rio Tinto’s submission also sets out in detail its relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people from 2003 to 2020 and the circumstances over this period that led to the events that occurred in the Juukan Gorge.
On 4 August 2020, Rio Tinto chief executive J-S Jacques said: “The destruction of the Juukan rockshelters should not have occurred and I have unreservedly apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. As a first priority our aim is to strengthen our partnership with the PKKP. That remains our focus. We have also taken actions to strengthen governance, controls and approvals on heritage matters.”
“I am continuing to meet with Traditional Owners across Australia and remain committed to listening and learning.”
The Government of Western Australia stated that ‘the recent destruction of the rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge of the Pilbara region is devastating for all parties involved and was clearly avoidable’. Its submission focused on the shortcomings of the current Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) and the proposed reforms to that Act currently being developed.
The Government noted that: ‘In order to achieve protection, conservation and management of Aboriginal cultural heritage in Western Australia, and to provide a clear framework that enables land users to manage Aboriginal heritage, a fundamental shift away from the current Act is required.’
Expert opinion: Mine site destruction likely to happen again
Indigenous Australian Archaeology and Anthropology experts from Flinders University have highlighted that the ‘routine destruction’ of Aboriginal cultural heritage sites in Australia is likely to continue unless various State protection laws or regulations adapt to better balance Indigenous interests with the day-to-day operations of mining and other industry in regions such as Western Australia’s Pilbara.
The experts say the ongoing risk to important cultural sites from mining in the Pilbara could be addressed by changes in Western Australia’s heritage legislation framework.
Professor Claire Smith said legislative change in WA should not just involve delisting sites but give more certainty to industry while conserving important heritage sites which require further research and investigation.
“There certainly is a need for a revision of the processes for permitting Indigenous archaeological sites to be destroyed by development in WA,” said Professor Smith and Daryl Wesley.
“The Aboriginal group signed off on the Section 18 in 2013 after extensive excavations (about 70 per cent of the sites) but the 46,000 BP date came only recently,” Professor Smith pointed out.
“Archaeological rockshelters have been routinely destroyed over decades in the iron ore mining process in the Pilbara. This is because of the geological context as the mesa and hills predominately consist of iron ore so are mined and destroyed in the open cut mining process,” said Dr Wesley, who studies rockshelters and cultural sites in the Northern Territory.
“Owing to this geological context, a higher proportion of Indigenous archaeological rockshelter sites tend to be destroyed in the Pilbara than elsewhere in Australia. I don’t think this has been properly quantified.”
However, Associate Professor Alice Gorman warned that any changes in legislation need to be handled with great care.
“Legislation change is often proposed on the basis of giving Traditional Owners more power and say over what happens,” shared Dr Gorman, president of the Anthropological Society of South Australia.
“But changes in regulations and administration can be more effective,” she says.
“If not well resourced to manage their heritage, sweeping changes may leave Traditional Owners as vulnerable to powerful mining companies as they were before – if not more so.”
The latest case in the Pilbara is part of a “long chain in destructive habits that are linked to coloniality,” according to Matthew Flinders Fellow Professor Amanda Kearney.
“Many Australians and politicians might like to ask themselves, how is it, that lack of consultation and repeated injury to Aboriginal people and their lands can become commonplace?” she asks.
“We need political will and legal safeguards to mitigate against this kind of ongoing failure to care for places of Aboriginal ancestral importance.”
“So too geographical isolation can no longer be a reason for damaging Aboriginal heritage. In which case, there must be surveillance and care-taking measures built into the design of remote area industries and development action.”