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Mining in Australia Feeds on the Destruction of Aboriginal Heritage

Last week, the multinational mining giant Rio Tinto blasted a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site so as to expand its iron ore mine in Western Australia. It’s the latest example of the powerful mining sector exploiting a legislative system built on indigenous dispossession.

Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, on May 15, 2020, immediately prior to blasting. PKKP Aboriginal Corporation / AFP

On Sunday, May 24, the resource giant Rio Tinto detonated explosive charges in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia to extend one of its mines, casually destroying two indigenous sites linked to more than 46,000 years of human habitation.

As the Guardian reports, the sacred cave in Juukan Gorge in the Hammersley Range showed 46,000 years of continual occupation, dating back to the last Ice Age. Artifacts obtained from it included a 28,000-year-old bone tool and a 4,000-year-old length of plaited human hair, linked through DNA testing to today’s Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners.

Rio Tinto dynamited those and other wonders to expand an iron ore mine. “Our people are deeply troubled and saddened,” said John Ashburton from the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, “grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land. Losing these rock shelters is a devastating blow.”

Archaeologist Michael Slack, who studied the cave, voiced his amazement at the destruction of one of the oldest known heritage places in Australia. “It was the sort of site you do not get very often, you could have worked there for years,” he said. “How significant does something have to be, to be valued by wider society?”

Double Standards

Crucially, Rio Tinto broke no laws. Rather, it exploited a legislative system that has evolved on the basis of indigenous dispossession. For most of Western Australia’s history, the law offered indigenous sites no real protection. How could it? If destroying indigenous culture were illegal during the colonial period, the entire continent would be a crime scene.

The Aboriginal Heritage Act passed in 1972 after widespread outrage about a particular egregious instance of vandalism. But the act allows the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee permission to proceed with development. In the Conversation, Samantha Hepburn explains that:

There is no statutory requirement for an Indigenous person to be on the committee, nor is there a requirement that at least one anthropologist be on the committee. Worse still, there’s no right of appeal for traditional owners from a committee decision.

This is borne out in the statistics. Between 2001 and 2007, 480 out of 488 applications to disturb heritage sites received approval. By contrast, non-indigenous cultural artifacts enjoy protection from the Heritage of Western Australia Act. As Tod Jones says, “due to its incorporation into the Planning and Development Act 2005 and the obligations it places on local government, it is well integrated into the Western Australian planning system.”

The Good Corporate Citizen

Not surprisingly, much of the commentary on Rio Tinto’s conduct centers on the need to bring legislation into accord with contemporary attitudes. The Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act dates from 1972. In the nearly fifty years since then, the official relationship to indigenous culture has shifted significantly. Government events begin with a “welcome to country” ceremony; tourist promotions invariably feature indigenous dances or songs; all but the most reactionary invocations of Australian nationalism allocate some role to indigenous people.

Yet it would be wrong to explain away Rio’s vandalism in terms of an anomalous backwardness. After all, in many ways, Rio presents itself as an exemplary corporate citizen. In 2019, the corporation ostentatiously backed the Uluru Statement, endorsing its goal to add a First Nations coice in the constitution and establish a Makarrata Commission. At that time, Joanne Farrell, the managing director of Rio Tinto Australia, explained, “We are proud to support the Uluru Statement from the heart . . . As the largest private sector employer of Indigenous people in Australia, we look forward to working with Indigenous communities, State and Federal governments and the rest of Australia to take this next step.”

In April, Rio tweeted that, “on #EarthDay, we recognise ‘connection to country’ — a physical, spiritual and emotional relationship with the land.” A month later, it blew up a place where local people claimed a relationship with land going back tens of thousands of years.

In 2017, the company lauded the involvement of young men from the “Rio Tinto Footy Means Business” program in the Sir Doug Nicholls Round at the Melbourne Cricket Ground to celebrate Reconciliation Week. In 2020, it marked the same date by dynamiting priceless heritage.

It’s instructive to think about Rio Tinto’s conduct in light of the phenomenal success of Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu. In his book, Pascoe describes indigenous accomplishments, particularly in agriculture and land management. He presents photos of sophisticated fish traps; he writes of European explorers marveling at indigenous houses and food; he outlines the principles of fire stick farming by which a culture survived on a dry continent for fifty thousand or more years.

Many white readers describe Dark Emu as a revelation and wonder why they had never previously learned of the achievements it describes. The book itself provides an answer. “It is clear from the journals of the explorers,” Pascoe writes, “that few were in Australia to marvel at a new civilisation; they were here to replace it. Most were simply describing a landscape from which settlers could profit. Few bothered with the evidence of the existing economy because they knew it was about to be subsumed.”

Their ignorance, however, was not innocent but deliberately maintained. The legal basis of colonization depended on the doctrine of “terra nullius” or “empty land,” a notion derived from John Locke’s theories about possession depending on agricultural improvement. The British government knew Australia not to be literally “empty” (indeed, its instructions to settlers contained extensive discussion about relations with the original inhabitants) but declared its right to colonize land they deemed uncultivated.

Evidence of indigenous agriculture thus challenged the entire venture — and so colonists went out of their way to destroy it. As Pascoe explains, “villages were burnt, the foundations stolen for other buildings, the occupants killed by warfare, murder, and disease, and the country usurped.”

The spread — and increasing permanence — of the European presence did not, at first, change the hostility to an indigenous culture that, merely by existing, threatened legitimacy of a colonial settler state. The scholar Rupert Gerritsen describes how primary documents written by explorers or settlers were often edited to remove references to indigenous settlements or achievements “because of the implications this may have had for the morality and legality of the colonial dispossession.”

Today, the majority of viable mining operations in Australia take place near indigenous communities. As a result, resource companies have the same material interest in the destruction of heritage and culture as the first pastoralists expropriating rich grazing lands once did. If a sacred site could halt operations of a billion-dollar mine, it makes good business sense to get it out of the way instead.

Yet unlike the early pastoralists, big mining companies no longer need to justify a colonization well entrenched after two centuries of dispossession. The security of white settlement allows a company like Rio to explore “reconciliation,” a term that, almost by definition, entails both indigenous and non-indigenous people coming to terms with the status quo.

That’s the explanation for Rio’s hypocritical relationship with indigenous culture. Rio, like the other mining outfits, will happily celebrate indigenous heritage if, by doing so, it can “reconcile” indigenous people to its operations. But the moment that heritage challenges extractivist capitalism, the celebration quickly turns to denigration and destruction instead.