The world’s no.1 miner, BHP, (ASX, LON, NYSE: BHP) will place on hold part of its expansion plans for its South Flank iron ore project in Western Australia (WA), which would have destroyed dozens of sacred aboriginal sites.
The move follows a national backlash over Rio Tinto’s (ASX, LON: RIO) blasting of a 46,000-year-old indigenous site last month in the resource-rich Pilbara region.
Western Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Ben Wyatt, said in a statement he had approved BHP’s application to “impact” the sites in the iron ore-rich area, where BHP is planning the $3.4 billion mine expansion.
The opinion of traditional owners, however, is not fully considered as they are not able to object to ministerial decisions made under Section 18 of the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act. Such resolutions are based on “land users’ conclusion that impact to a site is unavoidable.”
Traditional landowners are also unable to raise concerns publicly about the expansion, having signed comprehensive agreements with BHP as part of a native title settlement.
The mining giant agreed to financial and other benefits for the Banjima people, while the native title holders made commitments to support the South Flank project.
The legal loophole allows mining companies to apply for an exemption to damage or destroy cultural sites.
“No objections were filed and I approved the notice on 29 May, 2020. This notice covers 40 Aboriginal sites,” Wyatt said in his statement.
The Banjima allege they told the Western Australia government in April they did not want any of the 86 archaeological sites within the project area to be damaged.
In their communication, they noted that the “impending harm” to the area would be “a further significant cumulative loss to the cultural values of the Banjima people.”
In an email from a BHP spokeswoman, the company said on Thursday it was putting plans on ice.
“We will not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation with the Banjima people,” the statement read.
“That consultation will be based on our commitment to understanding the cultural significance of the region and on the deep respect we have for the Banjima people and their heritage. This will include further scientific study and discussion on mitigation and preservation.”
BHP’s expansion covers an area containing at least 40 aboriginal sites and rock shelters estimated to be up to 15,000 years old.
The state government hopes to pass its new Aboriginal cultural heritage bill this year, although the coronavirus pandemic has delayed the consultation process.
The South Flank project is expected to create 2,500 construction jobs, more than 600 operational roles and generate opportunities for Western Australian suppliers. The mine is expected to produce iron ore for more than 25 years.