Destruction Of Aboriginal Cave Was Legal, But Not Moral

The mining company, Rio Tinto, has destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site, Juukan Gorge Cave, in Western Australia in order to expand its iron ore mine. Rio Tinto has since apologized for its actions.

Juukan Gorge Cave was, as highlighted by former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, nine times older than Stonehenge, 23 times older than the Colosseum, and 75 times older than Machu Picchu. The cave had been occupied for 46,000 years including throughout the last ice age. A 2014 archaeological dig uncovered over 7,000 artefacts, including a 4,000-year-old braid of hair from multiple humans. Burchell Hayes, the director of the Puutu Kuntu Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKP), a group which opposed the destruction of the caves, has expressed his sadness than there is no longer a chance for the PKKP people to show their youth where their ancestors lived.

The destruction was, however, completely legal. Rio Tinto was first granted legal consent for the destruction in 2013 under the 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act. After gaining this consent, Rio Tinto facilitated an archaeological dig on the site in order to rescue any artefacts and information from the area. It was during this that the true age, and thus historical importance, of the cave, was discovered. However, under the 1972 Act, previously given consent for site destruction cannot be withdrawn or altered on the grounds of the discovery of new information. This means that despite the cave’s increased historical and cultural significance, the previous consent given for its destruction was still legal.

The 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act was, according to The Guardian’s reporter Call Wahlquist, drafted in favour of mining proponents, and is, therefore, biased against Aboriginal people. There has been bipartisan recognition across Australia that the Act, which has been up for review since 2012, is unfair to traditional owners and does not allow for sufficient consultation of Aboriginal folk. A replacement bill is currently in the process of being drafted. This legislation aims to, according to Western Australia’s Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt, provide appeal options so that agreements which allow for heritage site destruction can be challenged. However, the final consultation for this redrafting has been postponed due to the current COVID-19 outbreak.

Therefore, despite important new discoveries about the site and widespread acknowledgement that existing laws are biased against Aboriginal folk, Rio Tinto still went ahead with the destruction. They have since apologized to the traditional owners of the site, saying they are “sorry for the distress it has caused” and that they will be reviewing its plans for other sites. Aboriginal Ken Wyatt (cousin of the above Ben Wyatt), the Australian Minister for Indigenous Affairs, has since commented that the blast did appear to be a “genuine mistake” where state laws had failed and that the “destruction should not have occurred”.

Rio Tinto may have acted legally, but this does not mean they acted morally, nor does it mean that the destruction of the Juukan Gorge Cave was a “genuine mistake”. Rio Tinto did not simply slip and accidentally blow up a cave. They knew there had been new discoveries about the site – it had been partially responsible for the investigation which found said new information. They knew that the law which granted them permission to blast the cave was on track to change. Their carefully crafted statement, which only actually apologizes for any distress caused, offers no real explanation for why they went ahead with the destruction.

Grace Bridgewater

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