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Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 in Australia’s Western Pilbara, are Aboriginal rock shelters dating back 46,000 years. These ancient rock shelters are the only inland sites in Australia used for human occupation since the Ice Ages.

This is not the first time industrial development blasts away sites of cultural significance to the Aboriginal people of Australia. Last year, another cultural heritage site was cleared in Sydney to give way to a $2.1 billion railway line. The destroyed site included an excavated area where 2,400 stone artefacts indicating aboriginal occupation of the area between 1788 and 1830 had surfaced.

Another ancient rock art on the Burrup Peninsula in North Western Australia is also in danger of destruction to give way to a gas project.

In Australia, The Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment is trusted with listing locations with national heritage significance, and regulating development actions in these areas. 

The complicated legal system, with perplexing Acts and laws often wears out Aboriginal organisations through long lasting bureaucratic and legal battles. Big money is often the winner. 

The permission to destroy Juukan Gorge 1 and 2 was granted to Rio Tinto under Section 18 of the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act already in 2013. The Act which came into effect only in 1972, states that a Committee should “evaluate the importance and significance of “ any Aboriginal site on the lands up for development and construction and suggest “whether or not the Minister should consent to the use of the land for that purpose.” 

John Ashburton, chair of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee told ABC news that traditional owners were frustrated by the legal system: "We recognise that Rio Tinto has complied with its legal obligations, but we are gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system," 

In Australia, like Canada and New Zealand, any public lands without a specific tenure (e.g. National Park or State Forest) are referred to as Crown land or State Land, which is described as being held in the 'right of the Crown' of either an individual State or the Commonwealth of Australia and companies should become a “lessee” of the Crown. 

Rio Tinto had three other options to expand its iron ore mining, which would have saved the 46,000 years old heritage sites, but the company chose the forth option which included the destruction of the sites, in order to “reach a higher volume of iron ore.” 

Although news of modern development, specially the mining industry, bulldozing its way through cultural and environmental sites are increasingly common, there are also every now and then news of companies making an effort to support and protect local values. 

As an example, Norilsk Nickel has taken into account the interests and views of the indigenous people of the Arctic region of Taimyr and the Sami cultural heritage.

The Sami minorities who live in northern parts of Russia, Finland Sweden and Norway have often raised their concerns regarding the use of land by mining companies.


Paul Kostner - Helsinki Times

Images: The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation