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Australian Indigenous Groups Vow to Protect Sacred Sites From Mining

FILE - A promotional sign adorns a stage at a BHP Billiton function in central Sydney, Australia August 20, 2013.
FILE - A promotional sign adorns a stage at a BHP Billiton function in central Sydney, Australia August 20, 2013.

Mining giant BHP has suspended plans to expand a mine in Western Australia because of fears it could destroy dozens of indigenous sacred sites. The decision follows anger over the destruction of 46,000-year-old aboriginal caves by another resources company, Rio Tinto, last month.

The ancient Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia’s Pilbara region were destroyed by Rio Tinto as it expanded a multi-billion-dollar iron ore mine. There were protests outside its offices in Perth. The company has apologized for the distress it caused, but indigenous leader Robert Eggington says it was vandalism on a massive scale.

“Something you could equate to as if they blew up the Pyramids in Egypt because they have either had uranium or found gold under the Pyramids,” Eggingtonsaid. "It is about time that the politicians and the social structures of this country start to put some proper laws in place to stop this on lands that once destroyed can never come back.”Several prehistoric artefacts have been found at the remote site about 1,000 kilometers north of Perth.

The mining giant did have government approval to destroy the ancient rock shelters, but officials now concede the destruction of the caves was a "genuine mistake."

Campaigners want the right to appeal against ministerial decisions and aboriginal heritage laws in Western Australia that date back to the 1970s are being reviewed.

Indigenous elder Delores Corbett says sacred sites must be protected.

“I just hope this never ever happens again in Australia in regards to Rio (Tinto), mining companies, anyone blowing up without fully understanding the hurt that Aboriginal people go through,” Corbett said.

The backlash has prompted another resources giant, BHP, to halt plans to destroy up to 40 cultural sites to expand a mine in Western Australia. It says it will consult closely with aboriginal groups. In a statement, the company said it had a “commitment to understanding the cultural significance of the region.”

Land lies at the heart of indigenous culture, and it has immense spiritual, physical and social importance. The earth is seen as the Mother of creation, and a living, breathing mass that is full of secrets and wisdom.

Aboriginal Australians make up about 3 per cent of the population. Elders say that colonization by the British in 1788, and the dispossession that followed, has inflicted great harm on people who have lived in Australia for 65,000 years.