opinion

This week is Reconciliation Week. Australia marked it with a shameful bang.

Carved gently into the Hamersley Ranges in Western Australia’s Pilbara Region, runs Juukan Gorge. It’s a place with an ancient human history, a place that’s held signs and stories of the world’s oldest living culture for more than 46,000 years.

In 2014, archeological excavations of rock shelters there found several Aboriginal artefacts, including grinding and pounding stones, a 28,000-year-old marsupial bone tool and a 4,000-year-old belt made from plaited human hair — hair that belonged to the ancestors of today’s Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners.

On Sunday, a series of quick-fire booms echoed through this sacred place, as mining giant Rio Tinto detonated strategically placed charges at its Brockman 4 mine.

Within seconds, the Juukan 1 and 2 shelters were destroyed; rattled by a company that sees the place’s richness not in its ancient story, but in the deposits of iron ore that run beneath the rust-red soil.

Rio Tinto confessed to damaging this site of great significance on a day of great significance — Sorry Day. Held annually on May 26, Sorry Day falls during Reconciliation Week and acknowledges the strength of survivors of the Stolen Generations.

This particular Reconciliation Week marks 20 years since more than 200,000 people marched across Sydney Harbour Bridge calling for a treaty that would formally recognise the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and their ancient connection with this land.

Yet here we are, watching on as it is, once again, undermined.

In a statement issued to media on Tuesday, Rio Tinto said it had “worked constructively” with traditional owners on a range of heritage matters and “has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group”.

Where practicable…

Sadly, what Rio Tinto did was entirely legal.

In 2013, the former Barnett state government granted the company ministerial approval to excavate in the area in accordance with Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972).

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Not even the findings of the archeological excavation a year later could reverse that decision.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners only learned of the immediate threat to the Juuka shelters about a week before the blast, after they requested access to the area for NAIDOC Week celebrations, which take place in July.

They desperately negotiated to stop the detonation, but it was too late — the charges had already been laid and were deemed unsafe to remove.

In a statement to Mamamia, Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee Chair John Ashburton said, “Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land.

“There are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one and we know from archaeological studies that it is one of the earliest occupied locations not only on the western Hamersley Plateau, but also in the Pilbara and nationally. Its importance cannot be underestimated.”

Mr Ashburton said, while the traditional owners acknowledged Rio Tinto had met its legal obligations throughout the process, they are “gravely concerned [about] the inflexibility of the regulatory system” that allows such destruction to take place even after the cultural and historical significance of an area has been established.

The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act is under review, and final consultation on a draft bill by Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt has been pushed back to later this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Let’s hope it prioritises the other irreplaceable richness held within that rust-red soil.

Feature images: Supplied by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation.

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