New laws designed to avoid a repeat of the destruction of an ancient Indigenous site by resources giant Rio Tinto have been scrapped by the Western Australian state government.
Thousands of years of art, traditions and stories disappeared when ancient Indigenous rock shelters were destroyed in May 2020 as part of an iron ore project in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.
Juukan Gorge was one of Australia’s most significant First Nations archaeological sites.
Indigenous leaders said they mourned a tragic loss, and that healing would be “slow and painful”.
Resources giant Rio Tinto did have government approval to detonate the site, but company officials conceded it was a "genuine mistake."
Western Australia’s heritage laws were changed. The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act came into force five weeks ago but has now been scrapped by the state government.
Authorities have conceded that the legislation was confusing and divisive. Farmers condemned the measures that required landowners who wanted to develop their properties to organize and pay for surveys to ensure Aboriginal heritage wasn’t damaged.
“The Juukan Gorge tragedy was a global embarrassment for Australia," Western Australian state premier Roger Cook told reporters Tuesday. "Something needed to be done. No-one can argue with that, but our legislative response was wrong. Put simply, the laws went too far, were too prescriptive, too complicated and placed unnecessary burdens on everyday Western Australian property owners.”
The traditional Indigenous owners of Juukan Gorge said they felt betrayed by the repeal of the legislation, and they had lost faith in the government's ability to protect culturally significant sites.
Heritage laws dating to the early 1970s have now been restored in Western Australia with some amendments, which the government believes will prevent another disaster similar to Juukan Gorge. Aboriginal groups will be allowed to appeal against any development approval they believe harms sacred sites.
Indigenous settlement of Australia dates back an estimated 65,000 years. This vast history is documented in ancient songs, stories, dance and art.
First Nations peoples consider the land to be the mother of creation, connecting Aboriginal Australians to their past, present and future.