Opinion

Marcia Langton
The destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves

Here is a fact about life in Australia in 2020: the material and geographical manifestations of Aboriginal cultures developed over more than 65,000 years are being rapidly destroyed by mining companies, urban settlement, road and infrastructure development, and vandalism. This destruction is authorised by state and federal governments.

Our knowledge of these places is only partial. There are thousands of threatened Indigenous heritage places, and their destruction is an existential crisis for many extant cultural practices.

If these places are destroyed, their foundational meanings for group identity, social cohesion and social life will be severely impaired and cause distress, sorrow and trauma.

The detrimental effects on individuals with cultural authority for these places – and their social, ritual, ceremonial, clan and family life – will be profound.

The regulatory regime has failed to prevent destruction across vast landscapes. Small red flags are waved on the sidelines of a political and economic struggle for enormous mineral wealth and settler expansion that sacrifices places, culture and heritage.

 

On Sunday, May 24, blast and drill personnel at Rio Tinto’s Brockman 4 mining lease in the Pilbara, Western Australia, destroyed the Juukan Gorge caves, sacred places to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples.

The blast removed the last remaining evidence of the oldest site of continuous human occupation on the continent, and possibly in the world.

The PKKP peoples had settled an Indigenous Land Use Agreement under the Native Title Act in 2012, agreeing to the terms and conditions of mining on their land with their newly won native title rights. Their intention was that the agreement also include mine exclusion zones for the protection of significant sites, as well as waterholes and ecologically sensitive areas.

The caves that Rio Tinto destroyed had a fundamental religious significance to the PKKP peoples, for whom these places constitute a part of their identity and a central place in their social fabric. The loss of the Juukan Gorge caves is also a travesty because they held significant evidence for the further understanding of human history. Along with several other places, they held the evidence of the astonishing antiquity of human occupation of this continent.

In 2014, an excavation of the Juukan Gorge caves secured evidence of human life during the Pleistocene, including a 4000-year-old hair belt, DNA from which made evident the physical connection between the current-day PKKP traditional owners and their ancestors. This is surely unique to human history – the scientific evidence for a continuous human society in one place over thousands of years. A bone instrument in the caves was found to be 28,000 years old – the oldest example of bone technology known in Australia.

The value of these places to other Australians and to the world cannot be underestimated. Imagine the government of France allowing the destruction of the Lascaux Cave, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

The Juukan Gorge caves should likewise have been nominated by the Australian government for this status, but they never were. The reason for this is simple: they were not valued in the same way by Australian governments.

 

Rio Tinto had four opportunities to stop the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves. There were alternatives that would have allowed mining but lessened the impact on the site. The company deliberately and consciously failed to share these possibilities with the traditional owners and instead chose the most profitable and expedient option.

It is evident from the sequence of events that neither Rio Tinto personnel nor the responsible minister in the federal government considered the cultural and heritage value of the Juukan Gorge before it was destroyed. The minister had the power to intervene, and was cognisant of the importance of the sites, but did nothing. The complicity in this and hundreds of other cases is a failure of the Australian regulatory systems for mining and cultural heritage.

The religious significance of the sites and the archaeological evidence for their preservation was raised with Rio Tinto before the destruction. It is my belief that Rio Tinto wilfully ignored and suppressed this information.

The destruction of these caves shows the managerial negligence in the implementation of the Indigenous Land Use Agreement – as well as a deliberate breach of trust with the native title parties.

Many have condemned the company’s actions, particularly Aboriginal native title and land rights councils, who have formed a national coalition to seek reform to legislation such as the Aboriginal Heritage Act in Western Australia. Far from protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage, this act provided a fast track for mining companies to destroy it.

The act originated in a period of unfettered mining development and at a time of active suppression of Aboriginal people and their rights. It contains loopholes that specifically allow for this kind of vandalism.

It is my opinion that the Australian government has been negligent in leaving these matters to a state that is economically dependent on iron ore royalties and has demonstrated again and again that Aboriginal cultural heritage will be sacrificed to secure the flow of mining royalties to the state’s coffers.

 

We now know that the Juukan Gorge destruction went ahead to get access to an ore body valued at $135 million. It is a shocking example of Rio Tinto’s readiness to vandalise the cultural heritage of the traditional owners, Australia and the world for an expedient profit.

Yet the nature of the crime against the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples is barely considered. The settler obliteration of our landscapes is so normalised that the laws protecting the company are greater than those protecting our most important religious places.

Even without the protection of Australian laws, however, I would argue that the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves constitutes a cultural property crime. It is interesting – given the wanton destruction of our heritage – to consider that this might be a radical view.

The very idea that Rio Tinto has committed a cultural property crime – and that mining companies that destroy significant cultural heritage places across Australia are engaged in criminal activity – would not be countenanced in Australian legal and political circles.

The paradigm of settler domination and the trivialisation of pre-existing Indigenous cultures, laws, jurisdictions and polities is powerful and all-encompassing, despite the recognition of native title and the dismissal by the High Court of the legal fiction of “terra nullius”.

To me, on moral grounds alone, the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves by Rio Tinto is a cultural property crime. So, too, the destruction of many other significant places by mining companies and other entities that are expanding the settler footprint across our lands.

I have been arguing that the heritage protection laws across state and federal jurisdictions need to be harmonised, and that the federal government needs to take the lead in protecting cultural sites.

Under the current system, there is too much pressure on traditional owners to negotiate Indigenous Land Use Agreements at great speed, and the legislation favours the resource companies rather than the traditional owners.

Aboriginal traditional owners need stronger laws and empowering institutions and status in order to overcome the many obstacles to protecting their cultural heritage.

Indigenous leaders in Australia are advocating that Aboriginal traditional owners should have their right of free, prior and informed consent recognised in law. They want the power to form an independent Indigenous cultural heritage council to oversee the state and territory jurisdictions whose laws authorise the destruction of our landscapes and heritage. This should be granted.

Companies that obtain rights to Australian mineral, petroleum and gas resources should act not only in compliance with Australian laws but also in accordance with international laws and standards.

Reparations are also due to the traditional owners, for the destruction of their sites, and for the lack of access to their cultural heritage. This should take the form of financial compensation and also a significant and ongoing fund for the appropriate storage, care, access and cataloguing of the thousands of cultural heritage objects removed from mining leases by Rio Tinto and other companies. At the same time, companies such as Rio Tinto should be heavily fined for what they have done to our cultural heritage.

 

Last week, Rio Tinto announced that three senior executives had resigned following the caves’ destruction: chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques, iron ore head Chris Salisbury and corporate affairs boss Simone Niven. A statement said this was “by mutual agreement” with the board. Between them, they took a golden parachute estimated at $40 million.

They leave behind an extremely damaged relationship between the native title sector and the resources industry. The blasting of the Juukan Gorge caves has undone 20 years of work by the industry to establish a relationship with Indigenous Australians. This will not be repaired without major reforms.

It should give us pause for thought that the resignations came only after pressure from investor associations and superannuation funds. As much as we Indigenous people protested, it was the investors who called out the company’s failure to comply with international standards and expectations. Right until the end, it was done on their terms and not ours.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2020 as "A cultural property crime in moral terms".

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Marcia Langton is an Aboriginal writer, a descendant of the Yiman people of Queensland. She is professor of Australian Indigenous studies at the University of Melbourne.