Image: Ngaarda Media

In a rare video interview Juukan Gorge Traditional Owners speak of the devastating loss they felt when mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the sacred 46,000-year-old rock shelters almost one year ago.

On May 24, 2020, Rio destroyed the culturally significant caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region to extract $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore, sparking global outrage and a parliamentary inquiry.

In December, the Interim Report of the Inquiry which labelled Rio’s actions “inexcusable” and found current WA cultural legislation “played a critical role in the destruction of the shelters. The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 has failed to protect Aboriginal Heritage, making the destruction of Indigenous heritage not only legal but almost inevitable.”

“There is no amount of money that will bring back what was lost, I’d rather have the rock shelter back than you write me a cheque.”

Burchell Hayes

Rio Tinto has since apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and said they are committed to repairing their relationship with the Traditional Owners, while several of the company’s top executives stood down following the disaster.

But PKKP Director and Puutu Kunti Kurruma Land Committee Chairperson Burchell Hayes said “there’s still a lot of work to be done, we’ve had to reset the relationship.”

“There is no amount of money that will bring back what was lost, I’d rather have the rock shelter back than you write me a cheque,” he said.

“You felt the emptiness that something was taken from you, something that was so significant to you and our community.”

“It’s proof that our ancestors occupied this area for 46,000 years and for that to be taken away, it’s hard to understand why that happened.”

Mr Hayes said the only forward is through co-management to ensure Traditional Owners voices are heard.

“We’re not opposed to mining, however, we want to ensure that we’re around the table when it comes to making decisions about the impact on our country,” 

“That co-management piece, the model around that is to ensure that those voices that are normally silent when it comes to these sorts of conversations and discussions and mine development and mine planning, that there is a voice there, a traditional owner voice.

“Without that, that relationship just doesn’t work.”

WA Heritage Act 1972

West Australian Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson says an update to the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act will be introduced in the second half of this year.

Last updated in 1972, the Heritage Act gives the minister the power to allow for the destruction of Aboriginal heritage sites under the controversial Section 18 provision.

It was a Section 18 approval that allowed Rio Tinto to destroy caves at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara last year.

Under the proposed changes the minister would still have the power to allow the destruction of Aboriginal heritage sites, but traditional owners will now have the right to appeal.

Minister Dawson said he was committed to working with Aboriginal people and the mining sector to reduce the changes of a Juukan Gorge incident occurring again but could not guarantee the avoidance of a similar disaster in the future.