More than 100 ancient Aboriginal sites in Western Australia – some of which date before the last ice age – could be destroyed by mining companies which have already obtained legal permission to do so.
Guardian Australia has spoken to traditional owners in the iron ore-rich Pilbara who reveal their fears forsacred sites, including rock shelters with painted walls and scar trees.
A federal inquiry was recently established in response to the destruction by Rio Tinto of a 46,000-year-old rock shelter at Juukan Gorge deemed to be of the highest archaeological significance in Australia.
The shelter was destroyed by the iron ore giant in May against the consent of traditional owners, and sparked global outrage, an international shareholder revolt, and cost Rio Tinto its gold chip status for working with Indigenous people in Australia.
Now one of the foremost Indigenous academics in Australia, Prof Marcia Langton, says public attention is all that is keeping some companies from destroying many more sites.
Langton, who has had a long involvement in research on the mining industry and has advised several companies on Indigenous engagement, said: “All of the existing authorities to destroy remain valid.”
She believes “the companies that have them are just biding their time and waiting for public attention to move to something else, and they will go ahead and destroy hundreds of sites – amongst them sites as important as Juukan Gorge”.
Mining companies have been granted permission to damage 463 sites in the past 10 years. They include the cave that was used to prove the theory that the iron ore-rich Hamersley range was used as a climate refuge at the end of the last Ice Age between 18,000 and 12,000 years ago – around the same time the clay bison were sculpted in the Tuc d’Audoubert in France.
Mining firms BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue have all said, in the wake of the international backlash against the destruction of Juukan Gorge, they will not proceed without further consultation with traditional owners, but they retain the final say.
Traditional owner groups say they are left “appealing to the mining companies’ better nature” and Langton says consultation isn’t enough.
“So they consult, and then what? The traditional owners still have no rights.
“I think at the very least – and this is what they are refusing to do – the Western Australian government should reconsider all of the section 18 approvals [which allow companies to interfere with heritage sites] and give the traditional owners a right of appeal, because they have negotiated their rights away under pressure.”
The WA Aboriginal affairs minister, Ben Wyatt, says he has no plans to audit all the approvals granted under the state’s heritage laws.
Doing so would be “a lot of work”, he told the Senate inquiry into Juukan Gorge. “There’s nothing I can do legally to intervene upon them, and they may or may not be utilised.”
Wyatt’s office reiterated that position to Guardian Australia this week but also said “the genuine views” of traditional owners should be made known.
“Proponents should not use [confidentiality] agreements to muzzle the voices of Aboriginal communities,” Wyatt’s office said.
Rio Tinto has 13,300 ethnographic and cultural sites on its Pilbara mining leases, most of which are undisturbed because they don’t conflict with planned mining or roadworks. Fortescue manages more than 5,900 Aboriginal heritage sites across its leases, and BHP manages about 8,000 sites.
Very few sites are studied in detail before the sign-off to destroy is given, according to heritage experts in the Pilbara. The work done at Juukan Gorge was more thorough than most, leaving a gap in knowledge about what is really being lost.
Sites at risk include:
Tharbadu or Djadjiling (Mount Robinson): at least 40 and up to 86 significant sites of the Banjima people, including sites up to 15,000 years old. BHP received approval to destroy them three days after the destruction of Juukan Gorge made global headlines. The sites include rock shelters with painted walls and scar trees.
Weelamurra: Fortescue has sought approval to destroy several sites including dozens of rock shelters, two of which contain evidence of human occupation extending back even further than Juukan Gorge. One was dated at 60,000 years old, the other 47,800. A third rock shelter contains engravings that depict animal and human figures, animal tracks and geometric motifs: sacred text for the Eastern Guruma peoples representing creation stories. Most of the sites have not been properly surveyed.
Yirra: an important Yinhawangka site in the Hamersley range showing evidence of occupation from at least 23,000 years ago, which was used to prove the theory that the range was a place of climate refuge at the end of the last ice age, and a central point for colonising the rest of the Pilbara. Rio Tinto has had approval to operate nearby at Paraburdoo since 2000. Yirra is an unprotected site, just 65 metres from a 110-metre-high land-bridge that trucks use to deliver ore from the mine pit. There are 536 heritage sites within the greater Paraburdoo iron ore hub area. Permanent waterholes, which are sacred to the Yinhawangka and rare in the Pilbara, make up 7% of the sites.
The Eastern Guruma have lost more than 400 sites in the past 10 years, some before adequate studies could be done on their significance – and they’re not alone.
“Everybody, every group, has stories about places that were culturally very valuable that are now inaccessible, or gone, or diminished, or perched on the edge of a mining site,” says Dr Kathryn Przywolnik, the heritage manager for the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC).
“If there is a positive to be brought out of the Juukan Gorge situation – which was devastating for Puutu Kunti Kurrama people and Pinikura people in the extreme – it’s that it has shone a spotlight on something that was otherwise kept very quiet.
“It has flushed out a lot of problems the broader public had no idea about.”
In the wake of the destruction of Juukan Gorge, all the major mining companies in the Pilbara conducted internal audits of their heritage management processes and found them good.
Traditional owners in the Pilbara tell a different story.
‘We don’t know very much about them’
The Eastern Guruma have six Rio Tinto mines, a Fortescue mine and three railway lines on their lands. They estimate that 434 of their heritage sites have been destroyed while a further 285 are very close to current mining areas.
“Both companies [Rio Tinto and FMG] are looking to expand their operations considerably in the coming years, so it’s not just about sites that are in the path of imminent destruction. There are sites that are adjacent to roads or mines that are damaged or compromised because of proximity,” Przywolnik said.
Surveys can be perfunctory, and don’t give the minister a full picture of a site’s importance, Przywolnik says.
At Ngajanha Marnta or Spear Hill, she says, the minister signed off on Fortescue’s application to destroy a dozen rock shelters without knowing the contents of any of them.
In 2017, Fortescue had sought approval to build a railway through the area, full of sacred men’s sites, to link the Eliwana iron ore mine to the rail network at the Solomon Hub.
Wintawari appealed to state and federal ministers, and took the matter to the supreme court, but efforts failed. Eventually, in deal brokered by the Environmental Protection Authority, Fortescue agreed to reroute the railway in three places.
“Fortescue and Wintawari had previously agreed on a boundary around Spear Hill. Fortescue consequently designed our mining operations to stay outside of the agreed boundary,” the Fortescue CEO, Elizabeth Gaines, says.
This sounds like a good outcome, Przywolnik says. “Except what that actually meant was it’s now got a whole road directly over the top of a rockshelter that dates back to before the ice age, and it’s within a few metres of a railway.
“With Spear Hill, we made it abundantly clear to everybody involved that this was a no – and it was a no that was predicated on how little information there was to hand about the area,” she says. “We knew it was a really significant and a very culturally important sacred site. Of the 50 sites that FMG applied to destroy we don’t know very much about any of them.”
Now the Wintawari Guruma’s concerns are for a place called Weelamurra, where they are again in negotiations with Fortescue over the future of dozens of rock shelters, one possibly 60,000 years old, as well as stone structures, camping sites and painted and engraved rock art.
Salvaged, but not saved
More than 10,000 hectares of the Pilbara have been subject to Aboriginal heritage surveys funded by the mining industry, according to the Western Australian Chamber of Minerals and Energy. That makes the Pilbara one of the most heavily surveyed regions in Australia, but it still accounts for less than 0.02% of its total area.
The WA Chamber of Minerals and Energy told the federal inquiry: “Without section 18 approval processes in concert with traditional owners, billions of dollars of highly prospective iron ore deposits would be quarantined from access.”
Often the significance of a site is discovered only when it has been approved for destruction, after a salvage dig has been ordered and paid for by the mining company.
That is what happened at Juukan Gorge. A salvage dig in 2014, six months after Rio Tinto had been granted approval to destroy the site, uncovered more than 7,000 artefacts, and discovered the rock shelter had been occupied for 46,000 years.
But because that information came after approval had been granted, the mining company did not have to change its plans. Rio Tinto says it has agreed to a moratorium over further disturbance in the Juukan Gorge area and has reviewed all heritage sites that are currently in the path of mining works, with responsibility for managing those risks to be elevated to senior levels.
Przywolnik says the “very imbalanced heritage agreements” that exist means saving a heritage site “requires appealing to the mining companies’ better nature”.
“That’s the position that we find ourselves in,” she says. “There’s no real protection for any of the sites through legislative mechanisms.”
Fortescue’s Gaines said the Weelamurra application is “on pause” for two months so additional consultation can occur.
“As a result of this constructive consultation, we expect to achieve avoidance of significant cultural heritage beyond the current two-year mine plan,” Gaines says.
But Wintawari aren’t sure what will happen when that time is up.
“Since the Juukan Gorge matter exploded in the media and it became increasingly apparent what public sentiment was, FMG has suddenly taken the opportunity to hit pause,” Przywolnik says.
“We’re currently in discussions with them, which is good. But they’ve been wanting to be good corporate citizens for the last five minutes.”
Przywolnik says it is “inevitable” that some sites at Weelamurra will end up being destroyed to make way for the mine.
Take the deals or take nothing
The Banjima people, whose traditional estates border the Guruma, say the Pilbara’s traditional owners have had no choice but to “trade away their heritage” to mining interests. Their cultural losses have added significantly to the prosperity of the nation, a contribution that should be better recognised.
The Banjima have seven mines, 300km of railway line and hundreds of exploration tenements on their land, operated by BHP, Rio Tinto and Hancock. Their relationship with mining companies has been “long and sometimes difficult”.
“The cumulative destruction of our country is something which sits uneasily with our people,” senior Martidja Banyjima elder, Maitland Parker, says.
The Banjima said agreements with mining companies have been “negotiated in the context of an imbalance of power”.
“In the past, traditional owners negotiating these contracts had no real choice but to take the deals that were offered or take nothing,” Parker says.
BHP has approval to destroy more than 40 – and possibly as many as 86 – significant Banjima sites in the central Pilbara including art, artefacts and rock shelters that were occupied between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, for its South Flank iron ore mine expansion.
BHP has been aware since at least 2019 that the Banjima do not want any of the sites disturbed.
One senior elder said BHP’s mine expansion would “hurt us Banjima people very bad. We can’t change the lore, the songs or the country, because they were given to us by the old people, but the mining companies can take the country away and make it changed forever. They can bugger it up.”
Another elder said it was very important the feelings of Banjima people were put on record for future generations, “so they know we didn’t just sign off on this stuff and forget about it, we put up a fight about these places, about our lore and our culture. We need people to know that.”
The BHP chief executive, Mike Henry, said “deep consultation” was ongoing, but would not rule out the possibility that sites could still be affected.
Speaking in response to a shareholder resolution calling for an immediate halt to mining that could “disturb, destroy or desecrate” Aboriginal cultural sites, Henry said the company had “been advocating for greater rights and greater participation by traditional owners in decision making” even before the destruction of Juukan Gorge.
“We haven’t been operating just in line with the law, we have processes and requirements in place that well exceed the current legislation,” Henry says.
The Senate inquiry will hold on-country hearings in the Pilbara next month. The WA government has also promised to release a draft of its new Aboriginal heritage laws before the end of the year.
But it may well be too late for the hundreds of sites already slated for destruction, despite the traditional owners’ objections.
“The companies that persist in destroying cultural heritage against the wishes of traditional owners – who aren’t opposed to mining, but who are preserving the very important sites – this is an ideological position,” Langton says.
“Australians need to understand that the mining industry is making a play for raw power to destroy our heritage, Australian heritage, and world heritage – for a few dollars.”