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7 minutes

The destruction of Juukan Gorge

Last edited: December 11, 2023

On 24 May 2020, a sacred rock shelter in the Pilbara region of Western Australia was legally blasted and destroyed by mining company Rio Tinto – here’s what happened…

On 24 May 2020, a sacred rock shelter in the Pilbara region of Western Australia was legally blasted by mining company Rio Tinto. An archaeology report had stated that it was of the highest archaeological significance in Australia containing a cultural sequence spanning over 40,000 years, with a high frequency of flaked stone artefacts, rare abundance of faunal remains, unique stone tools, preserved human hair and with sediment containing a pollen record charting thousands of years of environmental changes.

The grief, shock and outrage reverberated globally.

As Wuthathi-Meriam woman and prominent legal authority Terri Janke notes in Our Culture: Our Future,  Australia and the world lost access to:

…intangible and tangible aspects of the whole body of cultural practices, resources and knowledge systems’ of human life going back 46,000 years.

In a brutally honest and thorough analysis of the long history of relationships between First Nations ownership and mining rights across Australia, Clare Wright, a Professor of history says that:

Juukan represents the pinnacle of the colonial mining project.

It demonstrated the almost total disregard of traditional owners as stakeholders when it comes to negotiating mining backed by government interests across Australia. Wright goes on to say:

In a matter of minutes, eight million tonnes of ore were ripped from the earth, and with them, 46,000 years of cultural heritage destroyed… For this hefty price we all paid, Rio Tinto lawfully gained access to $135 million dollars of high-grade iron ore.

The 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters in WA’s Pilbara prior to their destruction by mining giant Rio Tinto in May 2020. AAP Image supplied by traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation.

In November 2020, distinguished academics in the department of Law Reform and Social Justice at the Australian National University conducted a webinar panel discussion titled ‘Destruction of Juukan Gorge, Law, Mining and the Protection of Aborginal Heritage’. They discussed how all levels of government legislation failed to protect such an invaluable site, how Traditional Owners are locked out of the process and principles and strategies needed to inform updated legislation. Dr Virginia Marshall stated:

We are burning our libraries.

Archeology Professor Peter Veth warned:

We have seen the end of a long and conflicted era…. in this tragedy… We are at a critical point in recognition of Indigenous primacy in heritage in this country.

Why and how did it happen?

Chair of the Parliament’s Northern Australia Committee, Warren Entsch, in tabling an interim report of the inquiry into the destruction of First Nations heritage sites at Juukan Gorge said:

They [the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura (PKKP) people] were let down by Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Australian Government, their own lawyers, and Native Title Law.

Rio Tinto had acted within the law. Widespread backlash has turned the spotlight onto Australia’s outdated, severely inadequate and poorly coordinated cultural heritage legislation across Federal and State governments. Over time, amendments have been made to the processes for application to preserve a site. However, Traditional Owners continue to be marginalised in the process and the significant power of ministerial discretion to override the limited protections is used far too often. In the Juukan case, the Commonwealth, with its Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Act of 1984, and Western Australia with its Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 were responsible for this failure.

Where are we up to?

If there was a silver lining to the Australian and international travesty that was the destruction of the Juukan Gorge, it is that this event became a catalyst for action. Three significant initiatives have since begun:

  • In June 2020, the Federal Government Senate Inquiry initiated the Juukan Gorge disaster delivered its final report,  A Way Forward  in October 2021;
  • Also in June 2020, a unified alliance of First Nations leadership from around the country formed the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance (FNHPA); and
  • In December 2021, a contentious bill to replace the 1972 Cultural Heritage Bill (WA) was passed by the WA government 

In light of Juukan Gorge, the 2021 NAIDOC Committee chose a fitting theme – Heal Country, stating:

We cannot afford to let pass the very real opportunity that now presents itself for reform based on a fundamental change in the relationship Australia has with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

The Review

The Federal government’s Senate Inquiry into the Juukan Gorge tragedy, A Way Forward stated:

It is inconceivable that Australia has not developed proper protections for such sites, and action must be a matter of national priority.

The Report recommendations promise ‘fundamental reforms’. These include:

  • The foundational need to have Traditional Owners as authorities at the table at the beginning of any application for development on lands owned by First Nations communities;
  • The need for an overarching Commonwealth legislative framework;
  • The articulation of heritage standards; and
  • The need to find a balance in the battle between economic development and preservation of cultural heritage.

The FNHPA has been working on a 4-pronged approach:

  • Achieving legislative reform;
  • Engaging with the Federal government to consult First Nations communities;
  • Reforming how miners and big business operate; and
  • developing partnerships in the investment sector.

The co-chairs of the FNHPA have said:

the ‘immense burden’ of pursuing social, cultural and environmental rights had fallen to Aboriginal land councils and native title bodies under complex and varied legislative regimes. They therefore welcome a new national approach- one that seeks a new perspective of ‘celebrating… not subjugating’ Aboriginal cultural heritage to the juggernaut of the extractive industries.

On 29 November 2021, after many months of negotiations the FNHPA signed an historic First Nations partnership Alliance with the Federal government. The National Native Title Council (NNTC) Chair and co-Chair of the FNHPA, Kado Muir has said, the partnership is:

An historic and exciting day…

They [the leadership of the Federal government] have partnered with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, First Nations People, to [co-]design legislative reform that protects cultural heritage…

This is unique because we’ve essentially signed a partnership agreement which means at the highest level, we’re able to engage and be part of law reform…
This encourages full protection as a national standard, at a federal level.

FNHPA is also working proactively on the ground with mining companies facilitating a path forward to enhance the influence and voice of Traditional Owners. For example, BHP has been developing a set of principles that reaffirm free, prior and informed consent in agreement making. Kado Muir has said:

Together we are determined to drive industry reform and legislative change that improves both agreement making and the protection of Aboriginal cultural heritage which is of immense value to all Australians.

The third promising development, instigated by investor backlash towards Rio Tinto and the Juukan Gorge destruction, is a partnership initiative between FNHPA members and investment organisations such as Global Compact Network Australia and the Responsible Investment Association Australasia. In this work, FNHPA are promoting Dhawura Ngilan to educate investment stakeholders. This document provides a roadmap for improving approaches to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage management in Australia and sets out Best Practice Standards in Indigenous cultural heritage management and legislation.

The task of this partnership is complicated by the opaque nature of Australia’s standard of governance for mining, gas and oil sectors. Despite being a major producer in these sectors, Australia lags ‘way behind’ other OECD nations in addressing corruption and financial transparency.

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