There are mounting calls for changes to the approvals process for works likely to affect Aboriginal heritage sites after Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient rock caves at Juukan Gorge, north-west of Tom Price in the Pilbara last weekend.
National Native Title Council chief executive Jamie Lowe said state legislation needed immediate reform.
“This has been happening forever really [in] Australia as we know it,” he said.
“More power and more rights need to be given to Aboriginal people.”
Rio Tinto received approval for the work from the Barnett government in 2013 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Section 18 allows landowners to apply for an exemption to laws that prohibit works if they’re likely to affect Aboriginal sites.
Landowners send a notice for consent to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee, which recommends to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister whether approval should be granted.
In the wake of this week’s news, WA Mining and Pastoral Region MP Robin Chapple said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt should review all approved Section 18 notices.
He said the approvals process had been “a dog’s breakfast” for 30 years.
“We’ve got to fix this,” he said.
“It doesn’t need an amendment to the Act to resolve this — it just needs ensuring the [ACMC] do their job as they’re required to do, and that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs actually takes on his role as the Minister and … protect[s] Aboriginal cultural material.
“It’s not just this Minister: it’s the ministers of every single government right back to the 1990s.”
‘People would not contemplate destroying those buildings’
News of the caves’ destruction caused immediate community backlash, including from Puutu Kunti Kurruma traditional owner Burchell Hayes, whose ancestors lived in the region.
Mr Hayes said it would impact education of future generations, and wanted the State Government to ensure other at-risk sites don’t come to the same fate.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said it was a national issue, calling out what she said was a bias in heritage laws.
“I went and had a look at both our national and state heritage lists … the state list goes back to the 1830s and protects places like the Round House [in Fremantle],” she said.
“People would not contemplate destroying those buildings and yet this site, which is 46,000 years old, is destroyed with inadequate appeal rights and not a comment from the State or Federal governments or any intention to stop it happening.”
Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Simon Hawkins said the incident was evidence Aboriginal heritage wasn’t “treated the same as colonial heritage”.
Mr Hawkins said the weekend’s blasting highlights “the crucial need to improve current legislation around Aboriginal heritage”.
“Both state-sanctioned and illegal destruction of sites significant to Aboriginal people is a regular occurrence throughout WA,” he said.
He said changing the Aboriginal Heritage Act to provide greater protections for heritage sites could “give a powerful message to the Western Australian community of the significance of Aboriginal heritage as the original and irreplaceable part of Western Australia’s collective cultural heritage.”
Rio Tinto takes cultural heritage ‘seriously’
On Wednesday, Rio Tinto chief executive Chris Salisbury said the company took cultural heritage “very seriously” and had secured the required approvals before its works in Juukan Gorge.
A company statement said it would continue to work with the Puutu Kunti Kurruma and Pinikura people, traditional owner groups, government and industry on reform to the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Mr Wyatt acknowledged the disappointment within the Aboriginal community.
“This was a significant site, not just for Aboriginal people but I suspect for the archaeological history of Australia,” he said.
The State Government is currently reviewing the Aboriginal Heritage Act, which Mr Wyatt said he hoped would result in more opportunities for community input in future Section 18 approvals.
“What we’re hoping to do with our amendments is to ensure that new information can also be part of the process,” he said.
“Under the Act … there’s no timeframe in which an approval expires, and that’s I suspect one of the weaknesses we’ve seen here.”
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