Twelve months on from the destruction of the sacred Juukan Gorge rock shelters, Aboriginal groups question whether much has changed.
Rio Tinto’s blasting of the ancient site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region has sharpened focus on the way mining companies deal with traditional owners of the land they operate on.
But amid global outrage and claims some Aboriginal groups have effectively been locked out of their own land, mining activity has continued at a rapid pace.
WA’s resources sector generated record profits in 2020 on the back of a soaring iron ore price.
And while miners have vowed to strengthen heritage partnerships, it hasn’t always translated to visible progress.
“If it has been happening, then we haven’t seen it,” Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Michael Woodley told AAP.
“To be truthful, nothing’s going to prevent any of this sort of stuff happening in future unless people are genuinely serious about protecting Aboriginal sites.”
The destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan caves on May 24 last year was approved by WA’s government under outdated Aboriginal heritage legislation.
Expert reports commissioned by Rio outlined the caves’ outstanding archaeological and cultural significance long before they were blown up.
Rio has repeatedly apologised but insisted the blast could not be stopped by the time its executives became aware it was happening.
A parliamentary inquiry described Rio’s actions as “inexcusable” and highlighted the devastation of the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.
PKKP Aboriginal Corporation spokesman Burchell Hayes said the voices of traditional owners had too often been silenced.
“We’re not opposed to mining, however we want to ensure that we’re around the table when it comes to decisions about making an impact on our country,” he said.
Long-promised new Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation should be introduced to WA’s parliament later this year.
Stakeholders have welcomed proposed penalties of up to $10 million for land users who damage sites without authorisation.
But they say it would be naive to think they will prevent sacred heritage sites being harmed.
“What we lack really is leadership within those government parties and industry to actually protect the First Nations people and make sure that the legislation is being enforced for the people it’s supposed to be protecting,” Mr Woodley said.
The Yindjibarndi AC has been embroiled for more than a decade in a battle with Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metal Group.
Exclusive rights to more than 2700sq km of land, on which FMG’s Solomon hub is located, was legally granted to the Yindjibarndi people in 2017.
The High Court last year dismissed FMG’s application to appeal the native title ruling.
Other issues remain unresolved, including FMG’s support of a breakaway Yindjibarndi native title claimant group.
FMG chief executive Elizabeth Gaines last year told a parliamentary inquiry Fortescue had invited YAC to participate in heritage surveys.
She said Fortescue was open to a land access agreement on terms consistent with its other agreements.
Mr Woodley declined to comment on the progress of a potential Yindjibarndi compensation claim against FMG but said cultural heritage should be co-managed with the interests of Indigenous people “front and centre”.
“We need to have a fair and equitable relationship that sees First Nations’ people also benefit from these operations on our land, where it is reflected in what we see in our community … improving the welfare of our people,” he said.
Rio Tinto has told shareholders it’s reassessing 1300 heritage sites in the Pilbara in consultation with traditional owners.
About 54 million tonnes of iron ore – less than two per cent of its Pilbara reserves – have been quarantined to protect heritage sites.
Rio said it was working with traditional owners to better protect cultural heritage and ensure Juukan never happened again.
A moratorium on mining has been placed on the site and the two parties are working towards compensation.
Mr Hayes said no amount of money would replace what was lost.
“I’d rather have the rock shelter back than you write me a cheque,” he said.