Aboriginal Rock Shelters Could Have Been Saved from Blasting

Aboriginal Rock Shelters Could Have Been Saved from Blasting

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Two culturally and archaeologically significant rock shelters were destroyed by a mining company in Western Australia. The caves were ruined by blasting carried out by Rio Tinto, who remarkably did it with the full backing of the law. But new information reveals that there were alternative mining plans, that were hidden from the land’s traditional owners, which could have avoided the destruction of the sacred sites.

These rock shelters were archaeologically and culturally important because they had been occupied for over 40,000 years and provided genetic and other evidence that is critical for the history of Indigenous Australians .

The Rock Shelters Could Have Been Saved

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that in a federal parliamentary inquiry, the Rio Tinto CEO named Jean-Sebastien Jacques stated that there were four options to expand the iron ore mine in the area in 2012-2013. Three of the options would have avoided the rock shelters, but the mining company chose the more destructive alternative because it allowed them to extract $135 million worth of iron ore – a profit that the other choices could not beat. They opted for the route that allowed the company to mine “8 million tonnes of higher-grade iron ore," according to Mr. Jacques.

Mr. Jacques also said that the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, the land’s traditional owners, were “not made aware that four options were available in 2012 and 2013. Only one option was presented to the PKKP.” At the inquiry, the CEO also recognized that the destruction “should not have happened” and that “Rio Tinto and the industry must listen more to the voice of traditional owners. And I mean, really listen.”

But all of this happened too late to save the cherished rock shelters.

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40,000 Years of Aboriginal History Blown Up

The caves that were destroyed are in Juukan Gorge in the Hammersley Ranges in Western Pilbara. They are known as Juukan 1 and 2 and they are owned by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK), who have lived in the area for thousands of years. The Guardian reports that it was ‘the only inland site in Australia to show signs of continual human occupation through the last ice age’ . The sites are considered sacred by the groups and they had been used by Indigenous Australians as camps within living memory.

The rock shelters were of great archaeological importance because their flat floor meant that several feet of earth had accumulated which contained many relics from the past. The location is unique because it was inland and not inundated like other coastal sites during the last ice age. The caves were excavated in 2008 and also in 2014. Among the items found by researchers in 2014 were ‘artifacts believed to be the earliest use of grindstone technology in WA’ (Western Australia), according to ABC.

Plaited hair that was once part of a belt was also uncovered and this provided priceless genetic evidence that the ancestors of the PKK had lived here up to 46,000 years ago. The findings suggest that the area has been continuously occupied since the last ice age by the same people. Also uncovered was a kangaroo bone that had been sharpened into a tool. A great midden of shells was also uncovered, and this could have provided a great deal of evidence about fauna in the region over the millennia.

Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, despite calls to protect the two Aboriginal rock shelters. (Image: Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation)

The Legal Right to Destroy the Rock Shelters

Dr. Michael Slack, who took part in the 2014 investigations, told ABC that “it’s one of those sites that you only excavate once or twice in your career.” The archaeologists, along with the owners of the rock shelters, hoped for further investigations of the site. However, regulations and bureaucracy frustrated their efforts to further explore the caves.

The PKK had worked with the multinational mining company Rio Tinto to preserve the caves, and, the company funded the archaeological dig at the site in 2014. However, according to The Guardian ,‘Rio Tinto received ministerial consent to destroy or damage the site in 2013 under WA’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws, which were drafted in 1972 to favour mining proponents’.

They used this law to legally destroy the rock shelters. A Rio Tinto spokesperson stated that the company “has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group,” according to Head Topics .

Aboriginal art in the region (Burrup rock art). (Left; Jussarian / CC BY-SA 2.0 Right; Tradimus / CC0)

Destruction of Heritage Sites

The property owners desperately wanted to preserve the site because of its immense cultural and archaeological value. However, The Guardian quotes Burchell Hayes, a PKK traditional owner, as saying that Rio Tinto told them that “the site would be impacted after it asked to visit for upcoming NAIDOC week celebrations.” There had been no prior consultation with the Indigenous Australians and not even the Minister responsible for Aboriginal affairs was aware that blasting was going to take place.

The detonations took place over a weekend and they were part of an expansion project for an iron ore mine. It is believed that the detonations took place only 33 feet (11 m) from the sacred and archaeologically significant site. Rio Tinto informed the local Aboriginal people that both rock shelters had been destroyed. John Ashburton, a local PKK representative told The Guardian:

“Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land.”

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The enigmatic archaic faces, found in large numbers over the Burrup are among the earliest rock art works in the region. This may be one of the oldest carved faces in the world (Image: Ken Mulvaney)

Controversial Laws and Aboriginal Heritage Site Conservation

Mr. Ashburton told ABC “We recognise that Rio Tinto has complied with its legal obligations, but we are gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system.” The mining company had been given the right to conduct blasting in the area before the sites were recognized as being of historical significance. However once consent was granted under the Aboriginal Heritage Act for the destruction of a site it cannot be revoked even if further evidence shows that it is of archaeological or cultural significance.

The law surrounding the conservation of Aboriginal heritage sites have been deemed inadequate for many years. The Western Australian state government was able to use a clause in the Aboriginal Heritage Act to allow industrial development at the Dampier Archipelago of Western Australian, which has thousands of Aboriginal pictographs . In 2019 over 1000 hectares of land in Wangan and Jagalingou country was legally taken away from local Aboriginals.

Legal Protection is Lacking

There have been attempts to reform the Act in recent years and there is widespread agreement that the current 50-year-old law needs to change. ABC reported in May that the Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt stated that proposed new legislation would include a “process to consider new information that may come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the agreements by mutual consent.”

This would prevent incidents like the destruction of rock shelters . However, any new legislation may take some time and probably will still not protect Aboriginal heritage sites, based on recent history.

Juukan Gorge

Juukan Gorge is a gorge in the Hamersley Range in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, about 60 kilometres (37 mi) from Mt Tom Price. It was named by the daughter of Puutu Kunti Kurrama man Juukan, also known as Tommy Ashburton, who was born at Jukarinya (Mt Brockman). [1]

The gorge is known primarily for a cave that was the only inland site in Australia to show signs of continuous human occupation for over 46,000 years, including through the last ice age, but was deliberately destroyed by mining company Rio Tinto in May 2020. [2]

Prior to its destruction, the cave in Juukan Gorge was a sacred site for the traditional owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (Binigura) peoples.

Juukan Gorge: Rio Tinto blasting of Aboriginal site prompts calls to change antiquated laws

Juukan Gorge, in Western Australia, one of the earliest known sites occupied by Indigenous Australians, which the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto has admitted damaging. Photograph: PKKP Aboriginal Corporation/AFP/Getty Images

Juukan Gorge, in Western Australia, one of the earliest known sites occupied by Indigenous Australians, which the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto has admitted damaging. Photograph: PKKP Aboriginal Corporation/AFP/Getty Images

First published on Fri 29 May 2020 21.00 BST

A 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site destroyed by Rio Tinto this month is one of more than 463 sites that mining companies operating in Western Australia have applied for permission to destroy or disturb since 2010.

None of those applications have been refused. And under the state’s 48-year-old Aboriginal heritage laws, only the land- or leaseholder has the right to appeal – traditional owners do not.

The figures show that the shocking destruction of the sites in the Juukan Gorge in the western Pilbara was not unique.

The conflict between mining companies and Aboriginal heritage, particularly in mineral-rich areas such as the iron ore-rich Hamersley range of the Pilbara, has spawned a system of suffocating bureaucracy and lopsided agreement-making that privileges development over protecting sacred spaces and leaves traditional owners with no legislative power, and very little institutional power, to fight back.

The Juukan one and two sites are listed on WA’s Aboriginal heritage register as Brock-20 and Brock-21. They sit a short distance apart in Juukan Gorge, about 60km from the mining town of Tom Price, on the edge of the multibillion-dollar Brockman 4 iron ore mine.

Juukan two is one of the only sites on the Pilbara to show continual human occupation through the last ice age, and archeological records, including bone pits that catalogued changing fauna, dated back 46,000 years.

The sites were drilled and set with explosives last week. Traditional owners the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples don’t yet know the full extent of the damage.

The operation had been discussed at meetings with Rio Tinto over a number of years, but Burchell Hayes, one of the directors of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, says those meetings often conveyed technical information which PKKP elders found hard to interpret. He says the “blunt details” that would have helped them understand exactly what was being proposed, and when, was lacking.

“The sadness and the loss of our country has been very distressing,” Hayes said.

Rio Tinto says the “mining activity” conducted this month was “undertaken in accordance with all necessary approvals”, which had been obtained following a decade of “detailed consultation” with the PKKP.

“We are sorry that the recently expressed concerns of the PKKP did not arise through the engagements that have taken place over many years under the agreement that governs our operations on their country,” a company statement says.

The PKKP Aboriginal Corporation rejected that statement on Saturday, saying they had told Rio Tinto of the importance of the site on a number of occasions since 2013, the last as recently as March.

Hayes said the mining company did not advise the PKKP of its intention to blast, and they only found out “by default” on 15 May “when we sought access to the area for Naidoc Week in July”.

On a site visit in October 2019, Hayes said, their cultural and heritage manager, Dr Heather Builth, told a senior manager from the mine that the rock shelters were significant.

“[He] advised Dr Builth that there were no plans to extend the mine and Rio Tinto had been monitoring Juukan Gorge for vibration effects of local blasting,” Hayes said.

“At all times the PKKPAC has been direct and explicit in the archaeological and ethnographic significance of these rock shelters and the importance that they be preserved. For Rio Tinto to suggest otherwise is incorrect.

“We believe Rio Tinto’s outrageous statement is a bid to minimise the adverse public reaction and community outrage about Sunday’s blast at Juukan Gorge and the distress and upset caused to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people.”

The WA Aboriginal affairs minister, Ben Wyatt, says he is normally “contacted pretty rapidly by the relevant Aboriginal organisation” when a heritage site is under imminent threat, but was not called in this case.

“The first I heard about this was after the explosion,” Wyatt told reporters in Perth.

The federal Indigenous affairs minister, Ken Wyatt, says he received an 11th hour call from lawyers for the PKKP advising him of the risk and asking for advice, and that he advised them to seek an injunction under federal heritage legislation.

He did not take it further or intervene, but said in a statement after the blast that the “destruction should not have occurred”.

Even if Ben Wyatt had known, there are no legal levers under the current legislation that allow for ministerial intervention. Wyatt has promised to reform the laws but consultation on that reform has been slow and was put off again last month due to the coronavirus.

It is now highly unlikely the WA government will have those new laws drafted and through parliament before the state election next March.

Robin Chapple, a Greens MP who campaigned alongside Wyatt to reform the legislation when Labor was in opposition, says Wyatt has “found himself to be incredibly compromised” by the conflicting responsibilities of protecting Aboriginal heritage, as Aboriginal affairs minister, and supporting its most significant industry as the state’s treasurer.

“You cannot have one person who is pushing the state in the pursuit of mining … being the same person that has to represent the interests of Aboriginal people to protect the excesses of the mining industry from destroying their sites,” Chapple says.

In response, Wyatt says he acts “in the interests of all Western Australians when carrying out my ministerial responsibilities” and that his dual portfolios “only elevates the significance of Aboriginal affairs within this government”.

Yinhawangka concern over sites

Has Rio Tinto learnt its lesson from the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves?

Why did the company commit this egregious act of cultural vandalism? There are several layers to the answer.

A second group of Pilbara traditional owners has raised concerns about the impact of Rio Tinto's mining activities on its ancient heritage.

Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation archaeologist Anna Fagan said there were "big concerns" over Rio Tinto plans to destroy 124 of 327 heritage sites with its Western Range Expansion project in the Hammersley Range.

Dr Fagan said there had only been limited archaeological research, but some rock shelters dated back 26,000 years and contained a rich deposit of artefacts with the potential to be much older.

Until now, protection of sites depended on them being within a national park, or on Rio Tinto's "goodwill", Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation's chief executive officer Grant Bussell said.

"We rely on Rio's goodwill," Mr Bussell said.

"I certainly believe that because of your inquiry, I think, and the failures that happened in the PKKP country, they are more sensitive now and a little more careful about the protection of sites.

"We are getting positive-sounding statements out of Rio. [But] I couldn't point to a single tangible bit of progress, Iɽ have to say."

Mr Bussell raised concerns about the claim-wide agreements, which prevent traditional owners from objecting to mining activity or even speaking publicly about the agreements, although BHP last week said it would remove its gag clauses.

He said he received a letter from Rio Tinto on Friday giving him permission to talk about the agreement at today's inquiry.

Mr Bussell said there was a power imbalance in the negotiations over the 300-page 2013 claim-wide participation agreement, and he called for new laws "that require informed consent before agreements like ours are entered into".

"Consent, you know when it's not there," Mr Bussell said. "You can take my word for it … it was not informed consent that happened."

Supplied: Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation, composite ABC News

Rio Tinto said a feasibility study was underway into the Western Range project, which included extensive consultation and engagement with traditional owners, the Yinhawangka People.

“The Western Range project area currently has 370 known heritage sites and Rio Tinto has so far taken steps to protect more than 250 of these,” the company said in a statement.

“The remaining sites continue to be reviewed and assessed, with further s16 excavations to be conducted with the Yinhawangka People.”

Rio Tinto also said it had committed to modernising its participation agreement “including in relation to consent, to ensure the Yinhawangka People can raise concerns or objections relating to the impacts of our operations on their country”.

Related Quotes

"The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters should not have occurred and I have unreservedly apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people," Mr Jacques said on Tuesday.

"As a first priority our aim is to strengthen our partnership with the PKKP. That remains our focus. We have also taken actions to strengthen governance, controls and approvals on heritage matters."

In its submission, Rio outlines the process it went through to gain approval for the Juukan Gorge blast and how, during 2012 and 2013, it considered four options for mine expansion.

"Three avoided the shelters to varying distances. The fourth option impacted the rock shelters in order to access higher volumes of high-grade ore, and was the option that was chosen," it says.

Row for Rio over rock shelter

A Pilbara Aboriginal group is calling for changes to heritage regulations after an archeologically significant rock shelter was impacted by a detonation on a mine site about seven years after operator Rio Tinto was given approval for the move.

A Pilbara Aboriginal group is calling for changes to heritage regulations after an archeologically significant rock shelter was destroyed by a mine site detonation last weekend, about seven years after operator Rio Tinto was given approval for the move.

Two rock shelters were believed to have been destroyed on Sunday by a scheduled blast at the Rio Tinto iron ore mine west of Tom Price.

Blasting and mining of the location in the Juukan Gorge, including the shelter, was approved by a ministerial decision under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act in 2013.

A 2014 archaeological dig found a number of notable objects, including a 28,000-year-old animal bone sharpened into a pointed tool.

Scarp Archeology proprietor Michael Slack told Business News the site was very significant because of the antiquity of occupation.

&ldquoIt&rsquos one of the earliest sites of occupation in Western Australia,&rdquo Dr Slack said.

&ldquoReally early grinding stones, a bone point &hellip a (4,000 year old) hair belt, human hair woven into a belt.&rdquo

It is unclear what steps local traditional owner representatives Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee took after the excavation to negotiate with Rio Tinto.

That was until May 15, when the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people were informed that the blasting activities were going ahead and that explosive charges had already been laid.

At that point, the site was deemed irretrievable because the charges could not be safely removed.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee chair John Ashburton said the site was one of the most significant research sites in Australia.

&ldquoThis is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, sites in the upland Pilbara and is part of a rich landscape of places in the area that have not been studied in depth,&rdquo he said.

&ldquoThere are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one and we know from archaeological studies that it is one of the earliest occupied locations not only on the western Hamersley Plateau, but also in the Pilbara and nationally.

&ldquoIts importance cannot be underestimated.&rdquo

Mr Ashburton said he was concerned the regulatory system had been inflexible, and there was no mechanism to take action once a Section 18 approval was granted.

&ldquoWe recognise that Rio Tinto has complied with its legal obligations, but we are gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system which does not recognise the importance of such significant archaeological discoveries within the Juukan Gorge once the minister has given consent,&rdquo he said.

&ldquoWe are now working with Rio Tinto to safeguard the remaining rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge and ensure open communication between all stakeholders.&rdquo

Business News understands Rio had made its intention to mine the area clear as early as 2013.

The materials found in the excavation are understood to have been moved to a safe location before the blast.

A spokesperson for Rio said the company had been working with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people for the past 17 years.

&ldquoIn 2013, ministerial consent was granted to allow Rio Tinto to conduct activity at the Brockman 4 mine that would impact Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelters,&rdquo the spokesperson said.

&ldquoThis process included archaeological and ethnographic fieldwork to identify places of significance, as well as funding an extensive salvage management program in 2014 that collected cultural materials from the rock shelters.

&ldquoRio Tinto and the PKKP people formally entered into a native title agreement in 2011, following a long-standing relationship with the PKKP people spanning more than three decades.

&ldquoRio Tinto has worked constructively together with the PKKP People on a range of heritage matters under the agreement and has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group.&rdquo

Mines and Petroleum Minister Bill Johnston said he was not aware of the blast occurring until it happened.

&ldquoThe former Liberal Party Aboriginal affairs minister Peter Collier signed off and gave approval to these site works in 2013,&rdquo Mr Johnston said.

A representative of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people has been contacted for comment.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said the state government was planning changes to improve heritage protection rules.

&ldquoPrior to today&rsquos release from PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, I wasn&rsquot made aware of the blast or Native Title holder concerns about the site," he said.

&ldquoThe McGowan government is progressing new cultural heritage legislation to better protect Aboriginal heritage in WA.

&ldquoIt will place traditional owners at the centre of the heritage protection regime and encourage agreement making between Aboriginal people and proponents regarding heritage protection.

"These changes will deliver better outcomes in land use proposals for stakeholders, industry and the wider community.&rdquo

Rediscovering History

Aboriginal history has been handed down in ways of stories, dances, myths and legends. The dreaming is history. A history of how the world, which was featureless, was transformed into mountains, hills, valleys and waterways. The dreaming tells about how the stars were formed and how the sun came to be.

In the metropolitan area of Sydney there are thousands of Aboriginal sites, over 1000 just in the AHO partner Council areas. These sites are under threat every day from development, vandalism and natural erosion. The sites cannot be replaced and once they are destroyed, they are gone forever. The sites that are located in Lane Cove, North Sydney, Willoughby, Ku-ring-gai, Strathfield and Northern Beaches Council areas are still in reasonable condition and hold an important part in our history. The Aboriginal people, who once occupied this area, left important evidence of their past and way of life before colonisation. All Aboriginal sites are significant to Aboriginal people because they are evidence of the past Aboriginal occupation of Australia and are valued as a link with their traditional culture. An emphasis is placed on the scientific investigation into stone technology for a great deal of insight is obtained by studying the manufacture techniques and animals associated with them that tells us about daily traditional life. Clues to what these sites were used for can also be surmised by talking with Elders from other parts of Australia where traditional knowledge has not been lost to the same degree.

Rio Tinto admits damaging Australian Aboriginal heritage site

Sydney (AFP) – Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto has admitted damaging ancient Aboriginal rock shelters in the remote Pilbara region — blasting near the 46,000-year-old heritage site to expand an iron ore mine.

Traditional owners said the culturally significant cave in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia — one of the earliest known sites occupied by Aboriginals in Australia — had been destroyed in a “devastating blow” to the community.

Explosives were detonated near the site on Sunday in line with state government approvals granted seven years ago, Rio Tinto said in a statement.

“In 2013, ministerial consent was granted to allow Rio Tinto to conduct activity at the Brockman 4 mine that would impact Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelters,” the spokesperson said, adding the company had liaised with the Aboriginal community.

“Rio Tinto has worked constructively together with the PKKP people on a range of heritage matters under the agreement and has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group.”

Just one year after the blasting was approved, an archaeological dig at one of the shelters uncovered the oldest known example of bone tools in Australia — a sharpened kangaroo bone dating back 28,000 years — and a 4,000-year-old hair plait believed to have been worn as a belt.

DNA testing of the hair had shown a genetic link to the ancestors of indigenous people who still live in the area.

The 2014 excavations also found one of the oldest examples of a grinding stone ever found in Australia.

“There are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one”, Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee chair John Ashburton said, describing the site as one of the earliest-occupied locations nationally.

“Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land.

The local Aboriginal corporation said traditional owners had first learned Rio Tinto planned to blast the gorge near the rock shelters on 15 May after requesting access to the site.

Attempts to negotiate with the mining company to stop the blast failed, the corporation said, and it received advice that the charges could not safely be removed or left undetonated.

“We recognise that Rio Tinto has complied with its legal obligations, but we are gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system,” Ashburton said.

“We are now working with Rio Tinto to safeguard the remaining rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge and ensure open communication between all stakeholders.”

The Western Australia state government is currently reviewing the laws as part of a process that began in 2018.

Rio Tinto’s evidence condemned by Juukan Gorge traditional owners after revelation it could have avoided blowing up sacred sites

The traditional owners of Juukan Gorge say Rio Tinto’s submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of two of their sacred sites has “deepened our hurt” and caused them to “question the foundations of our relationship”.

Two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge, one of which showed evidence of continual occupation by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) over 46,000 years and was rated as being of the highest archeological significance in Australia, were destroyed in a mining blast by Rio Tinto on 24 May.

Rio Tinto had permission under the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act to destroy the rock shelters, which were on the edge of its Brockman 4 iron ore mine. It detonated the blast on 24 May despite an urgent request from the PKKP to save the rock shelters, because it said it was too late to safely remove the explosives.

The Rio Tinto chief executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, told a hearing of the parliamentary inquiry on Friday that the company had three options to design the mine pit in a way that would not damage the sites but chose a fourth option which involved damaging the rock shelters in order to access an additional $135m worth of high-grade iron ore. Jacques said the PKKP were never informed that there were other potential options for the mine which would have preserved the sites.

PKKP Aboriginal Corporation spokesman, Burchell Hayes, said the PKKP were already “deeply hurt and traumatised by the desecration of a site which is incredibly significant to us and to future generations”.

“Rio Tinto’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry has deepened our hurt as we understand the true extent of the dysfunctional process which led to this desecration and has belittled our heritage,” Hayes said.

“The information tabled to date leads us to question the foundations of our relationship with Rio Tinto. In particular, we regret the lack of value being attached to the land we had entrusted to them, beyond short-term financial gains.”

Hayes said that he, his family, and elders were continuing to mourn the loss of the rock shelters, and said that healing is “slow and painful”.

“Our trust in the system and our partners has been broken completely,” he said. “I hope that some good can come out of our pain as we all work to build a new future for ourselves and future generations. At the same time, we are committed to working with Rio Tinto and other stakeholders to build a positive legacy. We would like to see a true commitment from Rio Tinto to do the same.”

Jacques said on Friday that repairing the relationship with the PKKP was the company’s “highest priority”.

The PKKP is yet to make a submission to the federal inquiry, but said it would do so in the coming weeks. The group is bound by a number of confidentiality clauses in its partnership agreements with Rio Tinto, which confer financial benefits on the PKKP in exchange for a promise not to oppose applications by the company to destroy heritage provided the company makes reasonable effort to minimise damage.

The inquiry chair, Warren Entsch MP, said the committee had received permission from the Western Australian government to enter the state, despite the hard borders that remain in place due to the coronavirus pandemic, to hold an on-country meeting with the PKKP.

The WA Aboriginal affairs minister, Ben Wyatt, told the inquiry that he was finalising the draft of the new version of the Aboriginal Heritage Act to be publicly released in a few weeks. It will replace the antiquated 48-year-old legislation.

He said the new legislation would give traditional owners greater powers of consultation and the right to appeal, allow certain areas of high heritage value to be protected from destruction, and also give him, as the minister, power to order a stop to works that might destroy a site at the request of traditional owners.


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