Since the moment Terra Nullius was branded on Australian soil, the aboriginal community and culture have experienced unspeakable suffering. Since then, they have scratched, clawed and sacrificed their way to achieving self-determination and the rights to cultural land ownership in today’s society. Not before a large portion of the aboriginal population suffering through severe ostracization and mental issues, sparking severe drug and alcohol abuse. Even today, most aboriginal communities are located on the edge of suburban communities and cities.  There have been attempts of political and social reconciliation, however, most have not been received with open arms. Progressive acts and thinking have brought the aboriginal and English cultures gradually together. However, to say that the aboriginals and the rest of the “Australians” are unified is quite a stretch. However, something that hasn’t changed since the very beginning is their connection to the Australian land. Progress has been made,  as there are a number of activist groups and aboriginal organisation that aim at working with not only resource industry companies, but a range of companies that are involved in aboriginal affairs. They aim at reaching an understanding of what is and what is not permitted, through the attempt of clear communication and inclusion in projects between the aboriginal elders and the project managers. 

Mining for decades clashed with the Aboriginal community, causing friction between them and the mining industry. Even today, the definition between what land is deemed to be culturally significant, and land that is not, continues to blur the lines between clashes and peace. The aboriginal communities have been struggling for generations for land ownership and rights to their cultural lands since the very first settlers from England landed on Australia’s shores. 

The most recent clash comes after the mining giant Rio Tinto detonated explosives near a culturally significant site dating back more than 46 000 years. The sites were ancient time rock shelters that provided evidence to genetic links to the present day traditional owners of the land. These rock shelters were accidentally demolished from the blasts. It was accidentally destroyed due to the expansion of the iron ore mine in the WA. Chair of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee (PKK) has commented on the event, saying that “ 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.”. Most aboriginal settlements lived a nomadic lifestyle and moved around periodically. However, this site was significant as it is currently one of the only ancient aboriginal sites that had evidence of continual occupation. According to Sara Hanson-Young “ The destruction of this sacred site highlights another one of the failings of Australia’s environment laws. It’s clear we need stronger laws, not weaker ones or we will continue to see our environment and sacred sites destroyed for big business.”.

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Rio Tinto was granted permission to conduct the blasts in 2013, based on section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972). The outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act does not allow for consent to be renegotiated on the basis of new information. Since the announcement of Rio Tinto’s plan, there have been a number of findings at the aboriginal site (located in the Juukan Gorge), including a 4000-year-old lock of human hair which has matching DNA with some of today’s living traditional landowners.  As a result despite regular meetings with Rio Tinto, the Puuta Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation was unable to stop the blasting operation. 

Tensions now continue to rise, as there are worries between the aboriginal communities of the inflexibility of the regulatory system. There have been attempts at reviewing the Aboriginal Heritage Act, however, each submission attempt has led to rejection, on the basis that it is “unfair to the traditional owners and did not allow for adequate consultation”. “ A lot of people would be familiar that the legislation we operate under is almost 50 years old and it wasn’t really designed for the pressure of development and heritage compliance that we’re under these days says Archaeologist Dr Michael Slack, who was involved in the 2014 excavation of several ancient aboriginal artefacts, which were seen as of high archaeological significance. 

Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt has submitted the final consultation on the latest draft bill, which has been scheduled after the pandemic situation has calmed. “ The new legislation will provide options to appeal or amend agreements for the destruction of heritage sites. Meaning, if new information comes to light, it allows parties to amend the agreement by mutual consent.”, says Mr Wyatt. Since then, Rio Tinto has voiced its support for the proposed reform. However, the consent orders granted under the current system will be carried over, and the rights appeal will likely to be fixed, not broad or subject to extension. The major concern is that the approval processes would be prolonged and appeals would be subjected to extensions at critical points in the project, which affects project schedules, logistics and project management. 

Generally, Rio Tinto and the PKKP have had a long-standing and relatively healthy relationship. Rio Tinto has commented on their relationship with the PKK people saying “where practicable, modification to operations have been approved to avoid heritage site impacts and protect the places of cultural significance.” Currently, the PKK people and Rio Tinto are in talks about the safeguarding of the remaining rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge. As a result of these recent events, Rio Tinto and the PKK are looking to improve their relationship, the most critical part being the communication of such blasting events.

This isn’t the first time something like this has occurred. Back in 2018, there was a ruckus stirred after Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) secured a Section 18 notice to destroy a significant indigenous site in the Spear Valley, which dated back 23 000 years. The company was looking to construct a railway service to the new Eliwana mine development. However, after heavy criticism, and an administrative error with the act, the Federal Government rescinded the decision. After much deliberation, the FMG modified their contract and continued to develop without impacting the aboriginal heritage sites. 

The Aboriginal culture is an integral part of Australian identity. An end must come to the destruction of aboriginal heritage sites for there to be any chance of growth. Establishing effective communication and agreement between the resource industry and the aboriginal people is a fundamental step in pathing the way to Australia’s mining future. A delicate balance between respect and understanding on both ends must be rendered to allow for progress, not only in terms of business but in terms of a working relationship. 
 

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