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Australia Vows to Protect Aboriginal Heritage After Destruction of Sacred Sites

FILE - Mining company Rio Tinto, shown unloading iron ore in Australia in December 2013, in 2020 destroyed two sacred rock shelters in Australia dating back 46,000 years.
FILE - Mining company Rio Tinto, shown unloading iron ore in Australia in December 2013, in 2020 destroyed two sacred rock shelters in Australia dating back 46,000 years.

Multimillion-dollar fines are part of sweeping new changes to heritage laws to protect ancient Aboriginal sites in Western Australia. It follows the destruction by mining giant Rio Tinto earlier this year of two sacred rock shelters dating back 46,000 years, despite opposition from Indigenous groups.

The draft legislation in Western Australia is called the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020. It would replace outdated 50-year-old legislation and removes a contentious section that allowed the government to give irreversible consent to land users to destroy culturally significant sites.

Traditional Indigenous groups are to be given a greater say in the protection of their land under the proposed measure. In the past, some have agreed to sacrifice sacred sites to help impoverished First Nation communities receive a share in mining revenue.

In May, Rio Tinto, the world's biggest iron ore miner, destroyed two ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region as part of a new development. The Aboriginal caves were considered one of Australia's most significant archaeological research areas. Indigenous leaders had strongly opposed development at the site.

The outcry, including anger among company shareholders, was so intense that Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques and two senior executives were forced to quit.

The new legislation was being drafted before the Juukan Gorge was damaged, and it promises a "modern approach to protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage."

Western Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, says resources companies like BHP have already responded positively.

“What is already happened as a result of the Juukan caves is that miners with significant locations have effectively ceased work, and you have seen BHP in particular announce that,” he said. “So, those sites of extreme significance are already being reconsidered by the miners, or land users and the traditional owner groups. We have also released our new, proposed legislation.”

Should the legislation be approved by the Western Australian state parliament, fines of up to $7.2 million could be imposed for unauthorized damage to Aboriginal sites.

But Robin Chapple, a Greens lawmaker, said the bill proposed a “new and complex system” that under-resourced Indigenous groups would struggle to properly review before an October 9 deadline for public submissions.

The Kimberley Land Council, one of Western Australia’s biggest Indigenous organizations, said the proposed law “completely disregards Aboriginal people and their right to care for their heritage.” Tribal elders have demanded more legal protection for Aboriginal traditional owners, including the right to veto developments on their land.

Public hearings continue Monday in a federal government inquiry in Canberra into the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves. It is examining the failures by both government and businesses that allowed the site to be blown up to allow miners to dig out high-grade iron ore.

The earth lies at the heart of Australia’s ancient Indigenous culture, thought to be some 65,000 years old. Land is considered the mother of creation, connecting Aboriginal peoples to their past, present and future.