Tensions persist after Juukan throat explosion | Mandurah’s Courier
Twelve months after the destruction of the sacred shelters at Juukan Gorge, indigenous groups wonder if much has changed.
Rio Tinto’s blast of the former site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region has heightened attention to how mining companies deal with the traditional owners of the land they operate on.
But amid global outrage and claims that some indigenous groups have indeed been excluded from their own lands, mining activity has continued at a rapid pace.
WA’s resource sector generated record profits in 2020 thanks to soaring iron ore prices.
And if the miners are committed to strengthening heritage partnerships, this has not always translated into visible progress.
“If that happened, then we didn’t see it,” Michael Woodley, managing director of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, told AAP.
“To be honest, nothing is going to stop that sort of thing in the future unless people really take the protection of indigenous sites seriously.”
The destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Caves on May 24 of last year was approved by the WA government under outdated Indigenous heritage legislation.
Expert reports commissioned by Rio have highlighted the exceptional archaeological and cultural importance of the caves long before they exploded.
Rio has apologized on several occasions, but insisted the explosion could not be stopped the moment its leaders realized it was happening.
A parliamentary inquiry called Rio’s actions “inexcusable” and highlighted the devastation of the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.
PKKP Aboriginal Corporation spokesperson Burchell Hayes said the voices of traditional owners have too often been silenced.
“We are not opposed to mining, but we want to make sure we are around the table when it comes to decisions about an impact on our country,” he said.
New, long-promised Indigenous cultural heritage legislation is expected to be presented to the WA parliament later this year.
Stakeholders welcomed the proposed penalties of up to $ 10 million for land users who damage sites without permission.
But they say it would be naïve to think that they will prevent sacred heritage sites from being damaged.
“What we really lack is leadership within these government parties and industry to truly protect First Nations people and ensure that the legislation is enforced for the people it is meant to protect.” Mr Woodley said.
Yindjibarndi AC has been involved for over a decade in battle with Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metal Group.
Exclusive rights to over 2,700 km2 of land, on which FMG’s Solomon hub is located, were legally granted to the Yindjibarndi people in 2017.
Last year, the High Court rejected FMG’s request to appeal the native title decision.
Other issues remain unresolved, including FMG’s support for a group of title claimants from Yindjibarndi.
Last year, FMG chief executive Elizabeth Gaines told a parliamentary inquiry that Fortescue invited YAC to participate in heritage surveys.
She said Fortescue was open to a land access agreement on terms consistent with its other agreements.
Mr Woodley declined to comment on the progress of Yindjibarndi’s possible compensation claim against FMG, but said cultural heritage should be co-managed with indigenous peoples’ interests “at the forefront”.
“We must have a fair and equitable relationship that allows First Nations peoples to also benefit from these operations on our lands, where this is reflected in what we see in our community … improving the well-being of our people”, did he declare.
Rio Tinto told its shareholders it is reassessing 1,300 heritage sites in the Pilbara in consultation with the traditional owners.
About 54 million tonnes of iron ore – less than 2% of its Pilbara reserves – have been quarantined to protect heritage sites.
Rio said he was working with traditional owners to better protect cultural heritage and ensure that Juukan does not happen again.
A moratorium on mining has been put in place at the site and both parties are working on compensation.
Mr Hayes said no amount of money will replace what has been lost.
“I’d rather take the rock shelter than write me a check,” he says.
Australian Associated Press