Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act. (Supplied: Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation )
An internationally renowned anthropologist has raised concerns about the preservation of thousands of priceless artefacts from ancient rock shelters in the Pilbara, removed before Rio Tinto blasted the site to mine for iron ore.
- Anthropologist gives evidence at parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of caves at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia
- Professor Glynn Cochrane is concerned ancient Indigenous artefacts removed from the site are not being stored properly
- There are fears the priceless objects are sitting in shipping containers
There are fears for the preservation of the ancient objects, as experts say they are sitting in shipping containers and are not being stored according to museum standards.
Rio Tinto’s approach to Aboriginal heritage is under the microscope as former employees give evidence to a parliamentary inquiry investigating the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in May.
Objects found during previous archaeological work at the sites, including stone, wooden tools and a plait of human hair, helped establish evidence of human habitation stretching back 46,000 years.
Professor Glynn Cochrane, who worked for Rio Tinto in community engagement for two decades, told the inquiry there were 7,000 artefacts removed from the caves in the years before the detonators were put in place.
“We have no idea still, in 2020, where the final keeping place will be for these very important artefacts,” he said.
“It is almost like blowing up the tomb of the unknown soldier and forgetting about the occupant.”
‘Arrangements have not been made’ for artefacts: expert
Professor Cochrane raised concerns about whether the artefacts could be deteriorating, given he believed they were not being stored according to Australian museum best practice.
“I think it extremely bad that arrangements have not been made to properly provenance and make arrangements for those artefacts,” he said.
“They are stored in containers. They are not properly being displayed, explained, people are not being educated about them.”
Labor Senator and Yawuru man Pat Dodson told the hearing inappropriate storage options for cultural artefacts have “become as much of a disaster as blowing up sites”.
Academic Marcia Langton has consulted closely with Pilbara traditional owners on the protection of cultural heritage and said she believed “reparations” should be considered.
Professor Langton called for confidential agreements with Rio Tinto to be made public, to assess whether there had been a breach in relation to the caves or “cultural heritage from any destroyed site being stored in shipping containers”.
“We know that happens right across the Pilbara,” she told the inquiry.
The destruction of the caves was likened to a “bombing” when the National Native Title Council’s deputy chairman Kado Muir addressed the inquiry.
“We are all left a little impoverished as a result of having lost this major, significant site,” he said.
“The only time other Australians get the privilege to hear about these very special cultural values that we hold, is in a situation of conflict.”
The council said the decision to keep the items in shipping containers was “disrespectful” and an act of “violence” to Indigenous culture.
Rio Tinto has repeatedly apologised for the impact of the mining activity on the heritage site.
This week, the company released details of an internal review and confirmed it was stripping its chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques of $4.9 million in bonuses.
Rio Tinto has already given evidence to the parliamentary inquiry, confirming there were options to blast in a way that could have protected the rock shelters, but they were not shared with traditional owners.
The company also told the hearing high-grade iron ore worth $135 million had been accessed from the area following the blast.
Some 7,000 artefacts were discovered during the excavation of one of the Juukan sites. (Supplied)
‘Foxes in charge of the chickens’
Professor Cochrane also criticised the process for dealing with heritage concerns, which involves the state government and the mine itself, saying it was akin to “putting two foxes in charge of the chickens”.
The destruction has damaged Rio Tinto’s relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people and the Pinikura (PKKP) traditional owners, as well as its international reputation.
Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Ken Wyatt said mining companies needed to consult with traditional owners no matter what level of government approval they had been granted.
“You cannot make assumptions that a site is not relevant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people unless you sit and talk with the traditional owners,” he said.
“Even though you may, in WA’s case, be given a Section 18 approval by the minister, don’t make the assumption that it’s carte blanche to destroy a site.”
The federal parliamentary committee plans to travel to the Pilbara to meet directly with PKKP representatives next month.
The committee members have permission from the West Australian Government to travel there despite the hard border closure currently in place.
The federal politicians hope to inspect the blast site themselves during the visit.
Traditional owners request items be stored on country
Rio Tinto’s own submission to the parliamentary inquiry confirms “remains”, “artefacts” and other items taken from the caves are being stored in the mining company’s Dampier office, in north-west WA, and at a “storage facility” at the mine site.
This week’s internal review committed the company to work with the PKKP to establish a “keeping place” for the items that would be under the control of traditional owners.
The company said it conducted the salvage operation, which included taking a latex peel of a cave wall, in collaboration with “leading experts” and the PKKP, and consulted academics and the WA museum about appropriate storage.
Rio Tinto also said it created a one-hour documentary about the site.
The mining company said traditional owners requested the artefacts be stored on country, to keep the items on their traditional lands.
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