Resource-rich Western Australia state on Wednesday unveiled a long-awaited bill aimed at protecting Indigenous heritage, but drew immediate fire from Aboriginal groups because a government minister will keep final say over development decisions.
Indigenous heritage protection has become a hot button issue since miner Rio Tinto legally destroyed culturally significant rock shelters for an iron ore mine 18 months ago, sparking widespread public outrage.
“It’s a devastating day for Aboriginal heritage,” said Tyronne Garstone, chief executive of the Kimberley Land Council.
“Fundamentally, this bill will not protect Aboriginal cultural heritage and will continue a pattern of systematic structural racial discrimination against Aboriginal people.”
Western Australia produces more than half of the world’s traded iron ore, a key steel-making ingredient and Australia’s most lucrative export, worth A$153 billion ($111 billion) in the year to end-June.
The new state legislation is at odds with the findings of a national inquiry into Rio’s destruction last year of rock shelters at Juukan Gorge that showed evidence of continual human habitation stretching back 46,000 years into the last Ice Age.
The inquiry urged a new national protection framework and said Aboriginal traditional owners should be the top decision makers on development applications that could impact their heritage and have the power to withhold consent.
The bill, which has been under revision for three years, was introduced to state parliament on Wednesday.
The state premier’s department said it will focus on reaching agreement with Aboriginal groups and on obtaining full, prior and informed consent for development.
Aboriginal groups, however, said they had not been adequately consulted and they did not gain a right of appeal to a ministerial decision, a cornerstone of modernising the laws. Miners and developers will also be unable to appeal any ministerial decision.
In the decade to July 2020, miners submitted more than 460 applications to impact Aboriginal heritage sites and all but one were approved.
“What we have been delivered is … the Minister making unchallenged decisions on whether cultural heritage may be destroyed,” Tony Bevan, acting chief executive of the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corp, said in a statement.
The bill also put a lot of extra bureaucratic requirements on poorly resourced and financed Aboriginal groups that many would be unable to meet, he added.
The Chamber of Minerals and Energy, which represents miners including Rio, BHP Group and Fortescue Metals Group noted “extensive consultation” with government ministers, and said it could work with the new laws.
“We acknowledge that our industry hasn’t always got things right, at times with deeply regrettable consequences,” Chamber Chief Executive Paul Everingham said in a statement, adding that it remained committed to “respond to the priorities of local Indigenous people.”
The rock shelters that Rio destroyed at Juukan Gorge had contained remnants of a 4,000 year old plaited hair belt that showed a genetic connection with the area’s traditional owners.
Amid a public uproar, three senior executives including then chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques left the company and parliament launched a national enquiry into the incident.
($1 = A$1.3736)
(By Melanie Burton; Editing by Michael Perry and Richard Pullin)