Thursday, June 11, 2020

Mining Corporations and the Destruction of Cultural History

Mining giant BHP Billiton is poised to destroy at least 40 – and possibly as many as 86 – significant Aboriginal sites in the central Pilbara to expand its $4.5bn South Flank iron ore mining operation.

A BHP archaeological survey identified rock shelters that were occupied between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago and noted that evidence in the broader area showed “occupation of the surrounding landscape has been ongoing for approximately 40,000 years”.
BHP’s report in September 2019 identified 22 sites of artefacts scatters, culturally modified trees, rock shelters with painted rock art, stone arrangements, and 40 “built structures … believed to be potential archaeological sites”.

Under section 18 of the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act, the traditional owners – in this case the Banjima people – are unable to lodge objections or to prevent their sacred sites from being damaged. 

They are also unable to raise concerns publicly about the expansion, having signed comprehensive agreements with BHP as part of a native title settlement. BHP agreed to financial and other benefits for the Banjima people, while the Banjima made commitments to support the South Flank project.
But the Banjima native title holders told the WA government in April they did not want any of the 86 archaeological sites within the project area to be damaged, saying the “impending harm” to the area “is a further significant cumulative loss to the cultural values of the Banjima people”.
In a written appeal, the Banjima to the WA government in April this year say they “in no way support the continued destruction of this significant cultural landscape” but “are equally aware” they cannot formally object to the section 18 application. This letter in April followed one sent in December 2019 in which the native title holders said: “The significance of the sites impacted by the notice to Banjima people is such that Banjima people cannot and do not support the destruction of those sites as proposed by the Notice as to do so would be inconsistent with their cultural obligations to protect those sites.” They would “suffer spiritual and physical harm if they are destroyed”.
BHP decided it wasnot reasonably practicable for BHP to avoid the eighty-six potential archaeological sites” at the South Flank mine development area.
This follows the apology last week by the chief executive of Rio Tinto iron ore, Chris Salisbury, for destroying the rock shelter in Juukan Gorge, which was blown up in mining works at the Brockman 4 iron ore mine near Tom Price in the Pilbara region on 24 May, saying there had been a “misunderstanding” with traditional owners the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. 
Robert Eggington, a Noongar man, said Rio Tinto had exploited the weakness of WA’s 48-year-old Aboriginal heritage laws, which have been under review for two years.
“They used that against the people and then turned and blamed [it on] misunderstandings between the company and the custodians of that site,” Eggington said.
The Western Australian minister for Aboriginal affairs, Ben Wyatt, confirmed he approved the South Flank expansion three days after the destruction of Juukan Gorge made global headlines.

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