Juukan Gorge inquiry a watershed moment for Aboriginal hertiage


The Juukan Gorge rockshelters were destroyed by Rio Tinto. Credit: PKKP AND PKKP ABORIGINAL CORPORATION

The destruction of scared rock shelters in the Pilbara could be a much-needed catalyst for changing WA’s ‘outdated’ Aboriginal heritage protection laws.

Leading Greens MP Robin Chapple says the detonation of 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge by mining giant Rio Tinto should be a watershed moment.  He has told a Federal Parliamentary inquiry that the controversy brought to light many of the problems facing indigenous communities across iron ore fields.

“Hopefully this debacle will lead to better Federal and State understanding of the issues facing indigenous people that are subject to failing heritage laws and regulations, and indeed constrained by the claim wide participation agreements,” Mr Chapple said.

The inquiry was established after Rio Tinto exploded two rockshelters that lay on the western edge of the Pilbara’s Hamersley Range, about 60km north-west of Tom Price in May.  But the Joint Standing Committee is also investigating Aboriginal heritage protection across the Pilbara as part of the same inquiry.

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura people are the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge and the inquiry has laid bare the plight of other traditional land owners in the Pilbara.

The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Eastern Guruma people of the central Pilbara, told the inquiry that 93 per cent of their country was covered by mining leases.

In 2018, the group successfully stopped the destruction of a 23,000-year-old rock shelter at Spear Hill, near Karijini National Park.

WGAC representatives said the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs had approved Fortescue Metals Group’s application in November 2017 and a drawn-out legal battle saved the rock shelter itself, but left the area left sandwiched between a railway line and a haul road.

“We can’t take our grandkids out to show them where we grew up,” WGAC director and Eastern Guruma elder Terry Hughes said.

“There’s nothing to show them anymore.”

WGAC representatives also alleged that FMG is withholding $1.9M in royalties to pressure them into signing off on further mining leases over Eastern Guruma land.

WGAC director Tony Bevan said the payments were already due under existing agreements but stopped after WGAC requested more information about nine new mining leases on its land.

“Basically, FMG are currently doing what they like on Eastern Guruma country and paying nothing for it,” Mr Bevan said.

FMG CEO Elizabeth Gaines did not respond to questions from The Junction.

In a statement reported by the ABC, Ms Gaines said the company was committed to engaging with WGAC to “facilitate the outstanding royalty payment” and aimed to “work on a cultural heritage avoidance basis.”

Representatives of Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation (YAC), which represents the neighbouring Yindjibarndi people, also criticised FMG.

YAC chief executive Michael Woodley told the inquiry that FMG had deliberately undermined his organisation by providing at least $120M to fund a “breakaway group” of Yindjibarndi people.

He said the breakaway group conducted heritage surveys favourable to FMG and consented to FMG’s destruction of important sites, despite not being a registered native title organisation.

YAC principal legal officer George Irving said FMG paid little attention to Aboriginal heritage protection.

“If everybody in Australia doesn’t already know this, if it’s a toss-up between iron ore and a sacred site … the money’s usually on the iron ore,” Mr Irving said.

Mr Chapple says the approvals process should be placed in the hands of an independent authority rather than the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs.

“A minister has never opposed the destruction of a heritage site to date. That’s not because they can’t, they just don’t,” Mr Chapple said.

“The Minister is always going to be compromised … the vast majority of the income of Western Australia comes from the mining sector, so they will be under pressure.”

The inquiry will hand down its final report on December 9.