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Issue #1918      June 8, 2020

Rio Tinto bastardry in the Pilbara

How much longer is white Australia going to get away with acts of sheer, unadulterated barbarism unleashed on anything associated with the culture of the original Indigenous owners of the land? It is appalling that the destruction of such an exceptionally important archaeological site – and more importantly – cultural site dating back 46,000 years, has scarcely been mentioned on our news media. Compare this with the international hue and cry in 2001 when UNESCO called an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council after the Islamic State destroyed the 9th century Nergal Gate in Mosul.

A cynical reflection might be that this act of bastardry has been done under cover of the coronavirus pandemic.

It should be noted here that Rio Tinto did facilitate the archaeological dig in 2014, which proved the astonishing age of the site at the Juukan Gorge caves, something they perhaps regretted in 2020. The caves proved Aboriginal existence since the Ice Age, and archaeological findings discovered a macropod fibula approximately 28,000 years-old, as well as a 4,000 year old length of plaited human hair, woven with strands from the heads of several different people which revealed DNA links with current Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) – the traditional owners living today.

Archaeologist Dr Michael Slack said it was a once-in-a-lifetime discovery. There had been an earlier one-metre test dig, conducted in 2008, which dated the site at around 20,000 years old, but the salvage expedition uncovered a “very significant site” with more than 7,000 artefacts collected, including grid stones that were 40,000 years old, thousands of bones from middens which showed changes in fauna as the climate changed, and sacred objects.

The flat floor of the cave had allowed for soil and sand to build up, creating a layer almost two metres deep whilst most archaeological digs in the Pilbara hit rock at thirty centimetres. Most significantly, the archaeological records did not disappear during the last Ice Age. Most inland archaeological sites in Australia show that people moved away during the Ice Age between 23,000 and 19,000 years ago, as the country dried up and water sources dried up. Archaeological evidence from Juukan Gorge suggests it was occupied throughout. Slack stated that “it was the sort of site you do not get very often, you could have worked there for years,” and added, “How significant does something have to be, to be valued by wider society?” He should have said “White” society.

A little history of the events leading up to this catastrophe might be pertinent here.

In 2013, the Barnett state government gave Rio Tinto permission, under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) to conduct excavation, destruction or damage to this Pilbara site. This Act was framed in 1972 solely in order to favour mining proponents, which is why it states that once Section 18 notice is granted no subsequent archaeological information is admissible. Something of which all mining corporations would be well aware. The PKKP traditional owners have always questioned the intransigence of this Act, and it would appear that Section 18 is a legal loophole conveniently placed to allow such acts of vandalism as being “within the law.”

The Act has, since 2018, been under review by the McGowan government, and after a tragedy of such enormous proportions, it is regrettable that the review was not finalised. It is obviously “out of date, inefficient and ineffective,” as opined by the WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Ben Wyatt at the time. Unfortunately, the review process had currently been delayed due to the COVID-19 restrictions: or that is what we have been led to believe.

In a recent radio interview with Peter Stone (with no participation from Rio Tinto) Ken Wyatt’s reaction was “disappointment,” supporting Rio Tinto’s close working with traditional owners, but sad that to date two cultural sites had been destroyed. Replying to Stone’s query as to who gave permission for this destruction, he could only reply it seems to have been a mistake. He vaguely stated, “there was something missing in respect to the original decision, and a lack of involvement with the traditional owners which should be standard practice.”

Apparently, the traditional owners rang him at the eleventh hour, and he duly notified the lawyer (no name given) to make contact with the Commonwealth, which obviously did not eventuate. This should be investigated. Asked by Stone if he had followed up, Wyatt replied that he was waiting for the lawyer to get back. Surely, in this instance and as an Indigenous person himself, it was imperative that he should have been more active, especially knowing how important this site was and also knowing how mining companies behave?

Another aspect in the review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) is that the new legislation will provide options to appeal or amend agreements to allow/disallow for the destruction of heritage sites. Meaning that there would be provision for agreements between traditional owners and mining companies to allow for processing any new information. This legislation would also provide options for appeal should either party not be compliant with the agreement. It is interesting to note that Rio Tinto, though broadly supportive, still wanted consent orders already granted under the current system carried over, also demanding that rights of appeal be fixed and not subject to extensions.

So what happens now? Can a company who, in 2018, paid out $30 billion to its shareholders and whose board of directors contains non-Australians who have worked for Statoil (now Equinor), Royal Shell, Lloyds, Chevron, PetroChina, Macquarie, AMP, JP Morgan, the IMF, HSBC, Neptune, and Schlumberger, as well as a Secretary to the Cabinet of John Howard, have any understanding or appreciation of the value of a cultural heritage site to the oldest living peoples on the planet?

This disgraceful act, for which Rio Tinto “apologises,” should be investigated at the highest levels of our government. It must not be glossed over and buried. We need some investigative archaeology initiated in the Law Courts in order to assure our Indigenous Australians that they have our respect and deepest sympathy for this outrageous act.

Next article – Domestic violence inquiry a sham

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