Australia to beef up laws to safeguard Aboriginal heritage

Rio blew up the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Western Australia’s Pilbara region in 2020 to extract about 8 million tonnes of high-grade iron ore. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.)

Australia will strengthen laws to protect Aboriginal cultural heritage, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said on Thursday, following a review of mining standards after Rio Tinto’s destruction of the sacred Juukan Gorge rock shelters.

Rio escaped broader government sanctions in Thursday’s response to a 16-month parliamentary inquiry into how it destroyed the rock shelters in mid-2020 for an iron ore mine.

Both Plibersek and Prime Minster Anthony Albanese said the global miner had not broken any laws, and instead blamed a system that did not protect cultural sites from mining and other development.

“This was not an isolated mistake or an example of one company going rogue,” Plibersek said on Thursday, speaking in parliament. “What’s clear from this report is that our system is not working,” she said.

The Juukan Gorge rock shelters had shown evidence of human habitation dating back 46,000 years into the last Ice Age and the destruction caused deep distress to the site’s traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti, Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples.

The traditional owners said they were angry and disappointed they had not been consulted about the government’s response.

Institutional investor HESTA said new recommendations as outlined in the report would improve standards and cut the risk of cultural heritage mismanagement.

“We continue to engage with companies in which we invest to ensure they negotiate, early, fairly and in good faith with Traditional Owners,” CEO Debby Blakey told Reuters in a statement.

The government had accepted all but one recommendation out of the eight from last year’s parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of the historically and culturally significant site at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, Plibersek told parliament.

The decision on whether the final responsibility for heritage protection should sit with the Indigenous Affairs Minister or the Environment Minister is still being assessed, Plibersek said.

The government stopped short of backing a recommendation in the interim report that Rio pay restitution for its damage. It said instead it would “consider the issues raised” regarding compensation as it develops the new national framework legislation.

“Juukan Gorge, a site of huge significance to First Nations people, was destroyed two years ago,” Prime Minister Albanese said on social media.

“But no laws were broken,” he posted on Twitter. “It’s wrong. So we’re changing it.”

Chief Executive Jacob Stausholm said Rio Tinto would look at the government’s recommendations, “as we continue to strive to be the best partner we can be, and play an active role in ensuring heritage sites of exceptional significance are protected.”

Widespread outrage at the destruction of the Juukan Gorge site put a focus on industry practices and cost the jobs of Rio Tinto’s then-chief executive and three other senior leaders.

It also spurred other big miners in Western Australia to overhaul their agreements with traditional owners.

“All of this started with the destruction of our cultural heritage, everyone keeps on telling us they are sorry about it, but actions speak louder than words,” the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation said in a statement.

“We have tasted the devastation and we know what needs to be done,” it said, without elaborating.

(By Melanie Burton; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Kenneth Maxwell and Tom Hogue)


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