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'We froze': What was this 1.3-metre missile doing at an Aboriginal heritage site?
EXCLUSIVE: An unexploded high-tech missile was discovered at a culturally significant Aboriginal heritage site in remote South Australia. Neither the company that is believed to have made it - nor the Department of Defence - have explained how it got there.
Published Tuesday 21 December 2021
By Steven Trask, Sarah Collard
A group of Aboriginal Traditional Owners were inspecting a culturally significant site in remote South Australia when they discovered a high-tech anti-aircraft missile, a joint investigation by SBS News and NITV can reveal.
The 1.32-metre missile is believed to have been built by a subsidiary of Swedish weapons maker Saab and was found at a registered heritage site called Lake Hart West, about 40 kilometres from the small town of Woomera, in January this year.
Woomera is home to one of the largest weapons ranges in the world and the missile appears to be a similar model to those tested by Australia's Department of Defence near the town in 2019.
Lake Hart West is important to the Kokatha people of the Western Desert region of South Australia; it is scattered with artefacts, historic shelters and tool-making sites.
“It startled us. There were four of us and we froze about five metres away from it,” says Kokatha man Andrew Starkey, who registered Lake Hart West as a heritage site with the South Australian government in the early 2000s.
It startled us ... we froze about five metres away from it. - Andrew Starkey
“We were worried that there could be other missiles covered by the sand and in the bushes.
“There are over 20 heritage features all within a one-kilometre radius. There are rock engravings only a couple of kilometres away - it’s only through luck that that was not destroyed.”
The missile was discovered in January 2021. Source: Supplied
The conservation of Aboriginal heritage sites has been under intense scrutiny since mining company Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia in May 2020.
An inquiry into the disaster found that existing state and Commonwealth laws were failing to protect Aboriginal heritage areas.
The Defence Department maintains it does not test weapons at culturally significant Aboriginal sites. But neither the department nor Saab have addressed questions over why the missile was found at Lake Hart West.
The missile remains at the site, almost a year since its discovery.
The salt-encrusted surface of Lake Hart, near the town of Woomera in remote South Australia. Source: Getty/EyeEm
'It damages your soul'
Lake Hart lies in a remote part of the South Australian desert, a glistening white salt lake that was briefly mined in the early 1900s.
Surrounding it is a diverse ecosystem of creeks, valleys, sand dunes, claypans and sparse grasslands.
“The dunes, the lake systems, they are representative of our Dreamtime entities crossing the landscape, leaving their tracks behind,” Mr Starkey says.
“That’s what makes these areas important and that’s why we have a connectedness to the land because our ancestors walked there before we did.”
Kokatha man Andrew Starkey stands near a culturally-significant site, less than 100 metres from where the missile was found. Source: Supplied
Mr Starkey and his brother Robert are Kokatha Badu – respected senior figures, or lore men, who have devoted many years to documenting and preserving sites around Lake Hart.
Woomera is home to the Woomera Range Complex, a specialised inland facility where the Australian Defence Force conducts testing and experiments on weapons systems.
These tests cover "ground-based weapons systems, explosive ordnance, hazardous materials, and specialised force preparation activities", according to the government.
The surface of Lake Hart has been used for missile tests in the past, but the Department of Defence typically considers Lake Hart West off-limits due to its cultural significance.
“Defence does not use the area associated with Lake Hart West,” reads a confidential report prepared for the department and obtained by SBS News and NITV.
“A low use track through the upper dune system is present to the west and south of the zone with extensive Aboriginal archaeological deposits.”
Lake Hart is about a six hour drive, northwest of Adelaide. Source: Google Earth
The same report, prepared by a team of environmental consultants, notes that Lake Hart West is “located outside a Defence use area”.
“The place has a low tolerance to change, due to its intactness, location on the margin of Lake Hart, and connection with law and wider ethnographic aspects,” it reads.
The report, perhaps prophetically, also notes that “the main threats [to Lake Hart West] are associated with unintended Defence activities and environmental impacts”.
The South Australian government confirmed Lake Hart West was recorded on the central archive of Aboriginal heritage sites in 2002. A nearby site, Lake Hart North, is recorded on the Commonwealth Heritage List.
The missile at Lake Hart West was discovered in January while the Starkeys were undertaking site verification work.
“It’s damaging to your soul,” Andrew Starkey says.
“We are deeply spiritual people and our stories come from the land. And when you see the land hurt … that hurts us.”
Our stories come from the land. And when you see the land hurt … that hurts us. - Andrew Starkey
A photo of the missile was tabled during the inquiry into the Juukan Gorge disaster. SBS News and NITV sent that photo to a team of Europe-based investigators with expertise in weapons tracing.
They said the missile appeared to be an RBS-70, made by a subsidiary of Saab. The RBS-70 is described as a short-range, highly accurate, air-defence system.
The missile was discovered during an inspection of culturally significant sites at Lake Hart West, South Australia. Source: Supplied
Saab has not confirmed it is the manufacturer of the missile and declined to answer questions about it sent by SBS News and NITV. Instead, it referred all inquiries to the Department of Defence.
The Department of Defence tweeted photos of Australian troops firing RBS-70 missiles over Lake Hart in 2019.
“Blast off,” reads one tweet.
“Air Land Regiment personnel launch a live Bolide missile from the RBS-70 at a target over Lake Hart during Exercise Remagen Bridge 19 at Woomera Test Range, South Australia.”
Human rights lawyer John Podgorelec has been representing the Starkeys as they pursue a complaint under OECD guidelines that govern “responsible business conduct” by foreign companies operating in Australia.
The Australian National Contact Point, which runs the process, said a complaint had been received against an “Australian-based enterprise” in the “defence sector”.
SBS News and NITV have confirmed the complaint relates to Saab.
An entry on the OECD complaint database reads: "Specifically, the issues relate to the discovery of an unexploded ordinance in South Australia by the Starkey Traditional Owners, resulting in risk to personal safety and artefacts of cultural significance."
Mr Podgorelec declined to discuss the specifics of the complaint but said foreign companies had a responsibility to make sure their weapons were tested appropriately.
“As this matter is in the hands of the independent examiner it would be inappropriate to comment on it directly,” he said.
“But what I can say is that the international law is such that weapons manufacturers are obligated to have proactive preventative measures to address the human rights risks that the misuse of their products pose.”
The Australian Army tests an RBS-70 missile over Lake Hart during exercise Remagen Bridge in 2019. Source: ADF/Twitter
Dr John Pace is a former secretary of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and has also been assisting the Starkeys with the OECD complaint.
He said the Australian legal framework for the protection of Aboriginal heritage sites was “virtually non-existent”.
The Department of Defence said in a statement it “manages heritage values on its estate in a way that is consistent with the principles and requirements of Commonwealth heritage legislation”.
“All reasonable precautions are taken to ensure the safety of non-Defence users and protection of culturally significant areas.”
Andrew Starkey says he and his brother aren't looking for a complicated solution.
“Actually, it’s probably a lot more simple than what you think.”
“We are not saying you can’t test your missiles near the sites.
“All we want is that we be able to do pre and post-test inspections and assessments of the areas so that site degradation is tracked and then hopefully reduced.”