Western Australia’s Aboriginal groups slam cultural heritage bill

The San Carlos Apache tribal Elder Wendsler Nosie, Sr. leading his tribe on a march from Arizona to Washington in 2015 to protest Rio Tinto and BHP’s copper mine on their sacred land. (Reference image courtesy of NNTC via Twitter.)

Indigenous groups of the mining state of Western Australia (WA) are asking authorities not to present to parliament a bill to protect cultural heritage as they considered it “flawed”.

The National Native Title Council (NNTC) said in a statement its members had not been properly consulted over the bill’s latest revisions, adding that if the current bill was passed it would allow further damage to cultural heritage.

“If the bill continues in its current form, significant damage to Aboriginal heritage will absolutely occur and damage to Aboriginal heritage represents significant financial risk to miners and investors,” NNTC chairman Kado Muir said.

“If the bill continues in its current form, significant damage to Aboriginal heritage will absolutely occur”

NNTC chairman Kado Muir

The WA Alliance of Native Title Representative Bodies and Service Providers (WA Alliance), representing five aboriginal groups in WA backed NNTC’s position. It added the government had yet to make public the results of consultation, undertaken in a time frame of just five weeks in 2020.

“As stated at the time of release of the draft bill, these members do not believe sufficient time was allowed in this current phase for Aboriginal people to fully engage on the Bill and its impacts on their heritage,” the WA Alliance said in a separate statement.

The process followed Rio Tinto’s (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) infamous destruction of two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in May 2020, to allow for an iron ore mine expansion. The decision triggered backlash from the global public and investors, costing former chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques and other two top officers their jobs.

Change from within

Earlier this month, Rio Tinto appointed Ben Wyatt, a former Treasurer for the Western Australia state government and a cousin of the country’s Minister for Indigenous Affairs, to its board.

Wyatt’s nomination has raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest, even though he openly condemned Rio’s actions when he was state treasurer and released a draft bill to modernise the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which is designed to protect Indigenous heritage sites in WA.

“Whilst [Rio] may think they’re a global company, they’re a Pilbara company with overseas interests,” he said at the time. “One of the greatest risks to their operation is the fact that they don’t appear to have a significant [Pilbara] presence as a company. I don’t mean the local executives and the local team [are] here but as a board.”

The Kimberly Land Council (KLC) in northern Australia has also called on the state government to recognize the right of Aboriginal people to protect their cultural and environmental heritage and “not to bow” to the interests of mining groups.

Members of the WA Alliance include the KLC itself, as well as YMAC, Central Desert Native Title Services, Native Title Services Goldfields and South West Aboriginal Land and Sea Council.

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