A mining blast has destroyed a significant indigenous site dating back 46,000 years in Western Australia’s north, but it is hoped similar devastation will never happen again under proposed legislative changes.
Rio Tinto detonated explosives in an area of the Juukan Gorge on Sunday, destroying two ancient deep-time rock shelters, much to the distress of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.
The mining giant was granted approval for work in 2013, but subsequent archaeological excavation revealed ancient artefacts including grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4000-year-old braided hair.
Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee chair John Ashburton said there were fewer than a handful of indigenous sites that were as old, and the importance of the discoveries should not be underestimated.
“Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters, and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land,” he said.
Mr Ashburton acknowledged Rio Tinto had complied with the law, but said he was concerned the rigid system did not consider new information after ministerial consent had been granted.
“We are now working with Rio Tinto to safeguard the remaining rock shelters.”
Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said the company took cultural heritage and its partnerships with Aboriginal groups seriously.
“We have had a longstanding relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people for over two decades, and have been working together on the Juukan area since 2003, which includes having secured the necessary approvals for mining activity.”
The Australian Archaeological Association said the fact Rio Tinto did not revisit the decision after the cultural significance was identified was “inconsistent with modern standards of heritage management”.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said he was unaware of the blast or concerns beforehand.
Mr Wyatt said the state government hoped to pass its new Aboriginal cultural heritage bill this year, although COVID-19 had delayed the consultation process.
“It will provide for agreements between traditional owners and proponents to include a process to consider new information that may come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the agreements by mutual consent,” he said.
“The legislation will also provide options for appeal.”
Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Simon Hawkins welcomed a replacement to the 40-year-old Act, saying it was unfortunate Aboriginal heritage was not currently treated equally to colonial heritage.
“If an act can deliver an economic outcome, then development activity appears to override any other interests every time.”