Rio Tinto compared to Taliban for destruction of Aboriginal Juukan Gorge in Western Australia

How mining giant Rio Tinto’s obliteration of 46,000 year old caves with priceless Aboriginal artefacts was ‘like destroying Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids’: ‘They knew the value … they blew it up anyway’

  • Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has compared Rio Tinto to the Taliban 
  • In May 2020 the mining giant blew up two 46,000 years old rock shelters
  • Shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia were sacred to local Aboriginals
  • The government has introduced new laws to stop it from ever happening again

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has compared Rio Tinto to the Taliban for destroying sacred Aboriginal rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.

In May 2020, the mining giant blew up two shelters that showed human occupancy going back 46,000 years to access higher-grade iron ore in the Pilbara region.

An interim parliamentary report released in December 2020 found that ‘Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway.’

‘When those beautiful Buddhas were destroyed by the Taliban, there was an international outcry,’ Ms Plibersek said on Thursday, introducing new laws to stop that type of destruction from ever happening again.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in a tweet that ‘Juukan Gorge, a site of huge significance to First Nations people, was destroyed two years ago. 

‘But no laws were broken. It’s wrong. So we’re changing it.’

Minister for Environment Tanya Plibersek tables the Government's response to a report into the destruction of Juukan Gorge in Parliament House on November 24, 2022

Minister for Environment Tanya Plibersek tables the Government’s response to a report into the destruction of Juukan Gorge in Parliament House on November 24, 2022

‘It is unthinkable that any society would knowingly destroy Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids … but that’s precisely what occurred in Juukan Gorge,’ she told parliament.

‘The Juukan Gorge destruction is similarly significant. But it happened because of the weaknesses of our laws,’ she said. 

A parliamentary committee that examined the destruction found major federal law reform was needed to protect Australia’s cultural heritage.

Ms Plibersek said the government had accepted seven out of eight committee recommendations and would work through the final one with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance.

That recommendation relates to whether ultimate responsibility for cultural heritage protection should sit with the Indigenous Affairs minister or Environment minister. 

‘This report explains how we reached that shameful moment … (it) also tells the much bigger story of our national failure on Indigenous cultural heritage.

‘We acknowledge that we have to do better. We are committed to doing so, in partnership with First Nations Australians.’

Speaking on ABC radio RN Breakfast show on Thursday, Ms Plibersek said ‘One of the very clear findings of the two inquiries into the Juukan Gorge destruction was that this wasn’t a one-off incident and there were really significant flaws in our laws protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage.

‘In fact, the destruction of Juukan Gorge was legal under the laws as they exist at the moment and that was completely wrong, but it shows how weak the laws are that that’s the case.’

She added that ‘Juukan Gorge was perhaps the most high profile but certainly not a unique experience of cultural heritage protection.

‘We are so very fortunate in Australia, like, you know, you think about kids growing up in Egypt not knowing about the pyramids. 

‘It’s impossible to imagine and yet we have cultural heritage here in Australia that is tens of thousands of years older … and I think we need to change that we need to value it properly.’

Photos released by the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation show Juukan Gorge in Western Australia  on June 2, 2013 (top) and how it was on May 15, 2020 (bottom) after it was blown up by Rio Tinto

Photos released by the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation show Juukan Gorge in Western Australia  on June 2, 2013 (top) and how it was on May 15, 2020 (bottom) after it was blown up by Rio Tinto

WA Labor senator Pat Dodson said Australia could not claim to respect the oldest living continuous culture on earth while having easy ways to destroy the fabric of their culture.

‘(If) you continue to do that you’re starting to embark on a … road to obliterating any evidence about people’s lives and histories in this nation,’ said Mr Dodson, who is Indigenous.

Ms Plibersek said the report made clear the system to protect cultural heritage was not working, but said reforms were not about stopping development but aimed at addressing ‘our oldest imbalance’.

‘We’re always a better country – more unified, more confident, more secure in ourselves – when we give everybody a seat at the table when we listen to all voices,’ she said.

However, the traditional owners of the destroyed Juukan Gorge rock shelters say they were disrespected and sidelined in the federal government’s formal response.

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people claimed they had not been properly consulted.

Chairman Burchell Hayes said Ms Plibersek’s office had emailed the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation on Tuesday about the planned announcement.

He said custodians were angry and disappointed there had been ‘no detail or meaningful follow-up’.

‘It seems like a media event in Canberra is more important than giving PKKP people the respect of asking us what can be done to try and stop something like the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters happening again,’ Mr Hayes said in a statement.

‘We would have expected the minister would want to meet with us before making a public announcement about our country and cultural heritage.’

Ms Plibersek’s office said the minister had attempted to engage with the PKKP several times this week.

‘A meeting between the CEO and the minister was also offered,’ a spokesperson said.

Labor senator Pat Dodson (pictured) said Australia could not claim to respect the oldest living continuous culture on earth while having easy ways to destroy the fabric of their culture

Labor senator Pat Dodson (pictured) said Australia could not claim to respect the oldest living continuous culture on earth while having easy ways to destroy the fabric of their culture

Rio had legal permission to destroy the Juukan caves under WA’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act, which has since been replaced by new state legislation.

Opposition spokesman Pat Conaghan said the issues raised by the report needed serious attention and consideration.

‘They drew into very sharp focus the wider need for the modernisation of Indigenous heritage protection laws here in Australia,’ he said.

But the Nationals MP said any work to improve cultural heritage law should not ‘demonise’ the resources industry or impose ‘unacceptable risks to sensible sustainable economic development across Australia’.

In March 2021 Rio Tinto’s then chairman accepted personal failings relating to the destruction of the ancient sacred Indigenous site.

Briton Simon Thompson said he planned to step down from Rio’s board and not seek re-election in 2022 in a company statement because, ‘I am ultimately accountable for the failings that led to this tragic event.’

FEDERAL GOVERNMENT RESPONSE ON JUUKAN GORGE DESTRUCTION 

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek has released the federal government’s response to a parliamentary committee’s reports on the destruction of First Nations’ heritage sites at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.

The interim and final reports followed destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan caves by mining giant Rio Tinto in May 2020.

The recommendations included implementing international agreements, legislative and policy reform, improving systems and processes and prohibiting restrictions on traditional owners from seeking cultural heritage protections.

They also address broader cultural heritage law and policy matters.

The government agreed to seven of the eight recommendations.

The government recognised an ongoing story of damage and destruction to cultural heritage sites across Australia since colonisation.

It committed to law reform, with standalone First Nations cultural heritage legislation, to be co-designed with First Nations peoples.

Reforms will be established within the frameworks of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the National Agreement on Closing the Gap and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

In developing reforms, the government will consider the importance of cultural heritage to First Nations peoples and all Australians, balanced with the need for business and industry development certainty.

An agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance has been signed to make sure Indigenous voices are present at each stage of the law reform process.

A recommendation to give ultimate responsibility for cultural heritage protection to the minister for Indigenous affairs rather than the environment minister will be worked through with the alliance.

The federal government will also consider strengthening protections for First Nations people where state or territory protections are inadequate.

The government commits to putting truth-telling at the heart of its engagement with Indigenous people when it comes to cultural heritage law reform.

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