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.