The federal inquiry into Rio Tinto’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia has heard that the lack of protection of Aboriginal culture and heritage is an every day challenge for Aboriginal people nationally, not just in the Pilbara.
The Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Council told the inquiry that destruction of Aboriginal heritage is happening across the country on a daily basis.
“Every day there are forms of destruction of our cultural heritage,” the Council’s Rodney Carter said. “What saddens me is an artefact to me or other First Nations Victorian people is just as important as a massive site in the landscape.
“Every day there is an intrusion because a development takes place.
“Every day it’s happening and a lot is not immediately known to us.”
The council’s Matthew Storey said the federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act had not provided adequate protection, and should be “wiped” and new laws drafted.
Dr Anne Poelina, chair of Fitzroy Martuwarra council in Western Australia told the inquiry about the “enormous pressure” traditional owners were facing in protecting the Fitzroy river, the largest Aboriginal heritage site in Western Australia.
“Unjust, invasive colonial development comes to communities in such a way that we don’t have time to respond in the way we want to, to such massive development,” Dr Poelina, a Nyikina woman and expert in land and water management, said.Poelina said there needed to be a national statutory authority to regulate the Aboriginal heritage system, and WA’s draft new heritage laws were unlikely to offer greater protections.
“We are extraordinarily concerned about ministerial powers under the new WA bill ... and very concerned that … state’s rights will override Indigenous interests, and we need an independent federal arbitrator to consider these matters.”
She said that, ultimately, Aboriginal people need the power of veto, “not just on destructive development, but on foreseeable harm”.
The parliamentary inquiry was set up in June last year, to look at the sequence of events and decisions made by Rio Tinto that led to the destruction of Juukan Gorge and the damage to its traditional owners, the Puutu, Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.
Its interim report, released in December, was scathing in its assessment of the company.
“Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway,” the report, called “Never Again”, said.
It was equally critical of the failures of Western Australia’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws, and the shortfalls of the federal heritage and native title laws in exacerbating the power imbalance between traditional owners and mining companies.
It recommended mining companies introduce a voluntary moratorium on acting on existing approvals, under section 18 of the Western Australian legislation, to destroy sites.
The inquiry is led by the LNP MP Warren Entsch, who said in releasing the interim report that the PKKP faced a “perfect storm” with no support or protection from anywhere.
“They were let down by Rio Tinto, they were let down by the Western Australian government, they were let down by the Australian government, they were let down by their own lawyers, and they were let down by the native title law.
“Everything was against them,” Entsch said.
Rio Tinto’s decision to blow up the Juukan Gorge shelters drew global outrage from Indigenous groups and shareholders. It led to the resignation of the chief executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, and two other senior executives.
In early February the company announced an executive reshuffle which initially received a lukewarm response from native title groups, including anger from the PKKP who said they had only learned about the changes via news reports.
Rio Tinto later released a statement accepting it had bungled its communication of executive changes to traditional owners, and issued a joint statement with the PKKP saying both parties remained committed to building on the progress made in repairing their relationship.