The mining company was not penalized for destroying the caves, as the company itself did not break any laws. This is what Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said in introducing the parliamentary inquiry, which took a year and a half. The problem is that current legislation does not adequately protect cultural heritage from mining and other forms of economic development.
“This was not an isolated mistake or an example of the misguidance of one company,” the minister, Plebersk, told parliament. “What the report shows is that our system is not working.” The commission showed that Aboriginal cultural heritage sites are treated with care throughout the Australian mining sector. The legislation is now being amended in consultation with the First Nations Heritage Protection Coalition, a group of thirty indigenous organizations.
The caves in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia have been in permanent use since the last ice age – 46,000 years ago – as shelters for Aboriginal people in Australia, and sacred to the original (land) owners, the Puutu Kunti, Kurrama and Pinikura (PKK). Rio Tinto blew up the caverns to gain cheaper access to promising iron ore deposits.
Plebersk said in parliament on Thursday that it was inconceivable that any civilization would deliberately destroy Stonehenge or the Lascaux Caves. And when the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan were destroyed, the world was outraged, and rightly so. But the same thing happened at Juukan Gorge. She was referring to the huge 1,500-year-old Buddha statues in Bamyan that were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.
The destruction of the Juukan Gorge was painful for the traditional owners and led to worldwide criticism of the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto. The CEO and three senior executives were forced to step down after pressure from institutional investors. Other mining companies active in Australia have also been forced to scrutinize (often flawed) licensing agreements with traditional landowners.
The Australian Government adopts seven of the eight recommendations from the inquiry, although the decision on whether protection of Aboriginal peoples’ cultural heritage should fall under the oversight of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs or the Minister for the Environment is yet to be decided. The recommendation to oblige Rio Tinto to pay compensation to the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge was not accepted.
Rio Tinto CEO Jacob Stosholm said Thursday that the company will study the investigation committee’s recommendations. He did not mention compensation. “We will continue to try to be the best partner we can, playing an active role in ensuring the protection of heritage sites of extraordinary importance.”
The traditional owners of Juukan Gorge were not impressed. It all started with the destruction of our cultural heritage. Everyone tells us all the time how sorry they are, but actions speak louder than words,” said the PKK, Indigenous Foundation. “We have experienced devastation, and we know what needs to be done.”
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