Image: PKKP Country 

The Northern Australia Committee investigating the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia has handed down its final report this week.

The tabling of the report comes almost two years after mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the ancient rock shelters with impunity, to extract $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore.

The Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, were left devastated and the incident sparked global outrage and the beginning of the inquiry.

The report – titled A Way Forward – has been welcomed by the national native title body and Traditional Owner groups.

It found the disaster at Juukan was not an isolated event but part of a pattern of destruction permitted under inadequate laws at all levels of government and highlights the need for comprehensive changes to federal laws to protect thousands of culturally significant sites across the country.

“We have been waiting 50 years for this Bill to make First Nations the primary decision makers of their cultural heritage, and this once in a lifetime moment cannot be lost to us.” 

Greens Senator Dorinda Cox

The report makes eight key recommendations, including an overhaul of the legislative frameworks that surround Indigenous heritage and says they should be developed in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

It recommends the minister for Indigenous Australians should be given the administrative responsibility of Aboriginal heritage legislation, which currently sits with the federal environment minister Sussan Ley.

It’s also called for a review of the Native Title Act and the development of a model for cultural heritage truth telling.

Newly elected Greens Senator for Western Australia Dorinda Cox has also welcomed the report but says First Nations people must be the primary decision makers when it comes to their cultural heritage.

The Western Australian government is still working on its draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill, which WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson believes will offer better protection to Aboriginal cultural heritage once it is law.

But the Yamatji-Noongar Greens Senator has little faith in Minister Dawson or the WA government and would like for First Nations people to witness the draft Bill before it passes.

“It is now up to shareholders, investors, mining company boards and executives to join with First Nations people to publicly call on the WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson to rethink the draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill and give First Nations people the final right to say ‘No’, rather than the final say sitting with the Minister,” Senator Cox said.

Aboriginal people want to see the Bill before it is introduced into Parliament, we want to make sure that it includes internationally recognised best practices around Free, Prior and Informed consent, otherwise it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.”

We have been waiting 50 years for this Bill to make First Nations the primary decision makers of their cultural heritage, and this once in a lifetime moment cannot be lost to us.” 

Chair of the Northern Australia Committee and Queensland MP Warren Entsch told NIRS News there will be “no excuses” for the future destruction of Aboriginal heritage sites if the government does not follow the recommendations of the Juukan Gorge report.

“They have to. If we have another situation not dissimilar to Juukan, nobody can hide behind the shield and say we weren’t aware of it if they haven’t done the best they can to avoid it, and I’m telling you now from the reaction that I’ve seen from this – not just from the traditional owner groups but both nationally and internationally – if it happens again people will be much less forgiving.”