Juukan Gorge blasting, one year on: Traditional Owners warn action is needed 'to prevent another tragedy'

Rio Tinto's blasting of the sacred Juukan Gorge rock shelters is being marked by Traditional Owners on the first anniversary of the destruction.

May 24, 2021 marks one year since Rio Tinto blasted two rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.

May 24, 2021 marks one year since Rio Tinto blasted two rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. Source: Supplied

The Traditional Owners of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters are marking the one-year anniversary of the sacred site's destruction with a warning that government and industry "need to act quickly to prevent another tragedy".

Mining giant Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Western Australia's Pilbara region on 24 May last year to extract $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore.

The incident devastated the Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, and prompted a global backlash.

PKKP Aboriginal Corporation spokesman Burchell Hayes says governments and mining companies are still not doing enough to protect sacred sites.

"Proper protection can only come from the changed attitude and behaviour of resource companies," Mr Hayes said in a statement on Monday.

"Not just Rio Tinto but the entire industry, as well as robust government policies and watertight legislation which have the rights of Traditional Owners and their lands at the heart of their development.

"Our experience and what we are doing now has the potential to become a blueprint for others but ultimately it is up to us, the PKKP people, to speak for ourselves and our land."

The destruction of the Juukan caves was approved by WA's government under Section 18 of the outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.

Long-promised new Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation is expected to 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 are concerned that under the draft legislation, WA's Aboriginal affairs minister will retain the final say over whether sites are destroyed.

"Rio Tinto destroyed a sacred site at Juukan Gorge because the laws allowed them to do it, and the people responsible for developing and overseeing those laws did not stop them," PKKPAC chief executive Carol Meredith said.

"Effective, ingrained change is not going to be achieved if Traditional Owners are handed draft legislation which already has the assumptions and agendas of others imposed upon it."

National Native Title Council chief executive Jamie Lowe said the proposed legislation gave too much influence to land users.

"The question the NNTC is repeatedly asked is whether the new WA bill will stop another Juukan Gorge-type catastrophe, and the simple answer is no," he said.

Expert reports commissioned by Rio had outlined the caves' outstanding archaeological and cultural significance long before they were blown up.

A scathing interim report by a parliamentary inquiry last year described Rio's actions as "inexcusable".

Rio has repeatedly apologised but said none of its executives were aware the caves would be destroyed until days before the blast when explosives had already been laid.

The company says it's working with Traditional Owners to better protect cultural heritage and ensure Juukan never happens again.

It is reassessing 1,300 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 iron ore reserves - have been quarantined to protect heritage sites.

A moratorium on mining has been placed on the Juukan site but compensation is yet to be determined.

3 min read
Published 24 May 2021 at 4:54pm
Source: AAP, SBS