West Australian Indigenous Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt has backed the stance of BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group against a moratorium on mining activities that would "disturb, destroy or desecrate" cultural heritage, describing the proposal as a “blunt instrument”.
The mining companies were asked by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility to adopt a moratorium on operations to preserve First Nations cultural heritage sites and avoid a repeat of Rio Tinto's destruction of Juukan Gorge.
Speaking with the ABC on Thursday, Mr Wyatt said a moratorium would not satisfactorily “resolve” issues around the protection of cultural sites of extreme significance.
"I don't think simply stopping work on those is going to solve the issue. What will solve the issue is the new legislation that is out for public comment,” he said.
The WA Indigenous Affairs minister defended the approval protocols around sections 18s, which allow mining companies to impact heritage sites under the Western Australian heritage act.
"Of the hundreds of section 18s that are out there, the vast majority are for very uncontentious things like a road repair or a bridge repair or a retaining wall on a river line,” he said.
The board of mining giant BHP has also urged its investors to vote against the moratorium, saying that it would “disempower” Aboriginal people in managing their cultural heritage.
“No matter how well intentioned, the board cannot recommend a vote in favour of a resolution that would have this effect," a statement from the BHP Board said.
"Nor can the board support a resolution that could have the effect of setting a precedent for such outcomes in the resources sector more broadly.”
However, executives from the company this week told an inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto, that the resources sector needed to change and rebuild trust with Traditional Owners.
BHP executives also told the inquiry that it would not act on any of its existing section 18 approvals until it had further engaged with Traditional Owners.
BHP's existing approvals include one application to destroy dozens of cultural heritage sites at its $5 billion South Flank iron ore project in the Pilbara, which was granted by the WA Government earlier this year.
BHP told the inquiry that Banjima Traditional Owners had "raised concerns" over this section 18 application before it was lodged.
Fortescue Metals Group this week also rejected the calls for a moratorium. The mining giant which is owned by billionaire Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest, said the action would "disempower" Traditional Owners.
“The moratorium, proposed by people unfamiliar with the West Australian mining industry, is not supported by Fortescue as it would disempower local Aboriginal people and limit the positive contribution the mining industry is making to the state and national economies at a time when it is needed most,” Fortescue said in a statement.