Juukan Gorge

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Coordinates: 22°37′3″S 117°9′28″E / 22.61750°S 117.15778°E / -22.61750; 117.15778 Juukan Gorge is a gorge in the Hamersley Range in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, about 60 kilometres (37 mi) from Mt Tom Price. It was named by the daughter of Puutu Kunti Kurrama man Juukan, also known as Tommy Ashburton, who was born at Jukarinya (Mt Brockman).[1]

The gorge is known primarily for a cave that was the only inland site in Australia with evidence of continuous human occupation for over 46,000 years, including through the last Ice Age. The cave was permanently destroyed by mining company Rio Tinto in May 2020. Ministerial consent had been given to expand Rio Tinto's mine in 2013 under WA legislation.[2]

Prior to its destruction, the cave in Juukan Gorge was a sacred site for the traditional owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (Binigura) peoples.

Archaeological significance[edit]

The archaeological significance of the Juukan Gorge was known at least since 2009, when Slack et al. reported on the "two rock shelters with Aboriginal occupation starting at least 32,000 years ago and extending throughout the Last Glacial period".[3]

Rio Tinto received ministerial consent to mine the site in 2013 in the pursuit of expanding their iron ore mining operations. A year later, an archaeological dig discovered the site was much older than previously thought, at around 46,000 years old, and rich in artefacts including animal bones in middens showing changes in the local fauna, grindstones and various sacred objects. One particularly significant finding was a length of plaited human hair, woven together from strands from the heads of several different people, about 4,000 years old. DNA testing revealed that the hair had belonged to the direct ancestors of Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people alive today.[2]

PKKP heritage manager Heather Builth told Rio Tinto that the site was one of the "top five" most significant in the whole of the Pilbara region, and archaeologist Michael Slack had told them that one of the rock shelters, Juukan 2, was of "the highest archaeological significance in Australia", saying that its significance "could not be overstated", being "[the only] site of this age with faunal remains in unequivocal association with stone tools".[4]

Cave destruction[edit]

The cave was ultimately blasted along with another Aboriginal sacred site on 24 May 2020[2] as part of Rio Tinto's expansion of the Brockman 4 mine,[5] despite the PKKP having said many times that they wanted to preserve the site, and issuing an urgent request to halt the blasts five days beforehand.[6] The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) does not allow for mining consent to be renegotiated on the basis of new information,[2] and the blasting was legal under a Section 18 exemption in the Act.[5] WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt was as of August 2020 reviewing the Act.[7]

Rio Tinto response[edit]

After this aroused widespread international media coverage and public outcry,[8] Rio Tinto apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and the Pinikura peoples for the destruction of the caves and for causing distress.[9] The CEO of the iron ore group apologised on behalf of the company on 17 June. The National Native Title Council (NNTC) issued a request to the federal government asking for national legislation for Indigenous cultural heritage.[10]

A Rio Tinto board internal review under Michael L’Estrange, an independent non-executive director of Rio Tinto and former Australian high commissioner to the UK,[11] ascribed the mistake to a series of flaws in their systems, sharing of information, engaging with the Indigenous people and decision-making, and promised to implement new measures, including "the need for a greater prioritisation of partnerships and relationships with Traditional Owners and First Nations people from senior operational leaders and teams". CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques would be losing A$4.9 million in bonuses.[5] They had missed many opportunities to halt the plan.[12] The board review was published on their website on 24 August 2020.[13]

On 11 September 2020, it was announced that, as a result of the destruction at Juukan Gorge, CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other Rio Tinto executives would step down.[14] The National Native Title Council (NNTC) welcomed the move, but said that there should be an independent review into the company's procedures and culture to ensure that such an incident could never happen again.[15] Rio Tinto admitted their error, issued an apology via media[16] and on their website, and also committed to building relationships with the traditional owners as well as getting Indigenous people into leadership roles in the company.[17] One analysis of what went wrong in Rio Tinto to allow the destruction to occur suggested that processes failed at several levels, but mainly due to its "segmented organisational structure", a poor reporting structure, and Indigenous relations not being properly represented at a high enough level.[18] Simon Thompson, chairman of Rio Tinto corporation, announced on 3 March 2021 that he would resign despite record profits.[19]

Parliamentary inquiry[edit]

The "Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia" was referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia on 11 June 2020, to report by 20 September 2020.[20] Rio Tinto appeared before the inquiry in August and admitted that it did not advise the traditional owners of other options besides blasting. Senior executives did not learn of the significance of the site until 21 May.[7][21] The chair, Liberal MP Warren Entsch, requested permission from WA Premier Mark McGowan for a small group of politicians and staff to travel to the region in order to have face-to-face hearings with traditional owners early in September. Hansard will ensure accurate reporting of the meetings, and extra precautions are necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia.[9]

Apart from Entsch, the members of the Inquiry were:[22]

Submissions[edit]

There were 160 submissions received by the committee between June and November 2020.[23] Tanya Butler, who was WA registrar of Aboriginal heritage sites and secretariat of the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee (ACMC), was questioned by Warren Entsch during the inquiry. The ACMC is responsible under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 for assessing applications to disturb Aboriginal heritage sites under Section 18 of the Act, but the definition of an Aboriginal site had been changed over the years. Butler said that the ACMC had not been aware of the full significance of the Juukan Gorge sites when it was assessed in 2013.[24]

Submission 152 showed that Rio Tinto had received ministerial consent to damage the site in 2013 under Section 18 in the pursuit of expanding their iron ore mining operations. The PKKP had not objected to the Section 18, despite having taken part to the excavation works in 2009 (see Slack report above[3]).[23]

Interim report (December 2020)[edit]

On 9 December 2020, the inquiry published its interim report, entitled Never Again.[22] The report "highlights the disparity in power between Indigenous peoples and industry in the protection of Indigenous heritage, and the serious failings of legislation designed to protect Indigenous heritage and promote Native Title". Seven recommendations were made, including a moratorium on mining in the area and rehabilitation of the site.[25] The report also recommended that compensation should be paid to the traditional owners.[26] It said that the destruction of the caves was "inexcusable", and also called upon mining companies to voluntarily stop acting on existing approvals. While the inquiry and report was bipartisan, there was one dissenting voice with regard to the moratorium; WA Liberal senator Dean Smith was concerned that essential work on infrastructure would be unnecessarily delayed.[27]

The report also recommends that the Western Australian Government review and reform the current state heritage laws, and that the federal government review the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984.[25] It also outlines deficiencies in the WA Act.[28]

After the publication of the report, Senator Pat Dodson tweeted "The destruction of these ancient sites was a disaster for our nation and the world".[29]

The inquiry continues to investigate the failings of state and Commonwealth heritage protection laws, as Rio Tinto's action was technically legal, after they had obtained permission in 2013, under Section 18 of WA's Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 to go ahead with their blasting operations.[26] The full report is due to be published in 2021.[29]

Further reading[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia". Retrieved 20 November 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d "Rio Tinto blasts 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site to expand iron ore mine". The Guardian. 26 May 2020. Retrieved 27 May 2020.
  3. ^ a b Slack, Michael; Fillios, Melanie; Fullagar, Richard (December 2009). "Aboriginal Settlement during the LGM at Brockman, Pilbara Region, Western Australia". Archaeology in Oceania (44). doi:10.1002/j.1834-4453.2009.tb00066.x. This paper describes the results and implications of recent excavations on the Hamersley Iron Brockman 4 tenement, near Tom Price, Western Australia. Results concentrate on two rock shelters with Aboriginal occupation starting at least 32,000 years ago and extending throughout the Last Glacial period. Preliminary observations are proposed concerning the nature of Aboriginal foraging patterns as displayed in the flaked stone and faunal records for the Brockman region
  4. ^ Jenkins, Keira (5 August 2020). "Rio Tinto tells Senate inquiry it could have avoided Juukan Gorge destruction". NITV. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  5. ^ a b c Perpitch, Nicolas (23 August 2020). "Rio Tinto executives stripped of bonuses over destruction of Juukan Gorge rock shelters". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  6. ^ Wahlquist, Calla; Allam, Lorena (4 August 2020). "Rio Tinto blew up Juukan Gorge rock shelters 'to access higher volumes of high-grade ore'". the Guardian. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  7. ^ a b Michelmore, Karen (7 August 2020). "Rio Tinto didn't tell traditional owners there were options to save ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  8. ^ Wahlquist, Calla (18 August 2020). "Juukan Gorge traditional owners 'appalled' by attempted sale of unauthorised photos". the Guardian. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  9. ^ a b Henderson, Anna (18 August 2020). "Federal MPs get WA border coronavirus exemption to investigate Rio Tinto's Juukan Gorge destruction". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  10. ^ Hirini, Rangi (17 June 2020). "Rio Tinto responds to allegations they're 'not sorry' for Juukan Gorge destruction". NITV. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  11. ^ Hopkins, Andrew; Kemp, Deanna; Owen, John (22 June 2020). "How Rio Tinto can ensure its Aboriginal heritage review is transparent and independent". The Conversation. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  12. ^ Wahlquist, Calla (24 August 2020). "Rio Tinto chiefs lose millions in bonuses over destruction of Juukan Gorge". the Guardian. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  13. ^ "Rio Tinto publishes board review of cultural heritage management". Rio Tinto. 24 August 2020. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  14. ^ Shaimaa Khalil (11 September 2020). "Rio Tinto chief Jean-Sébastien Jacques to quit over Aboriginal cave destruction". BBC News. Retrieved 11 September 2020.
  15. ^ Chau, David; Janda, Michael (11 September 2020). "Rio Tinto boss Jean-Sebastien Jacques quits over Juukan Gorge blast". ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation). Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  16. ^ Fernando, Gavin; Young, Evan; Stayner, Tom (11 September 2020). "Rio Tinto boss and top executives step down following destruction of Aboriginal Juukan Gorge rock shelters". SBS News. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  17. ^ "Inquiry into Juukan Gorge". Rio Tinto. 24 August 2020. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  18. ^ Hopkins, Andrew; Kemp, Deanna (11 September 2020). "Corporate dysfunction on Indigenous affairs: Why heads rolled at Rio Tinto". The Conversation. Retrieved 12 September 2020.
  19. ^ "Rio Tinto chairman quits over Aboriginal site damage in Australia". aljazeera.com. Al Jazeera English. 3 March 2021. Retrieved 5 March 2021.
  20. ^ "Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia". Parliament of Australia. 18 June 2020. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  21. ^ Wahlquist, Calla (7 August 2020). "Rio Tinto did not tell traditional owners blowing up Juukan Gorge site was just one option for mine". the Guardian. Retrieved 24 August 2020.
  22. ^ a b Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia (December 2020). Never again: Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia - Interim Report. Commonwealth of Australia. ISBN 978-1-76092-197-2. PDF
  23. ^ a b "Submissions [to the Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia]. Submission 152". Parliament of Australia. 2020. Retrieved 22 June 2021. Questions from Mr Snowdon. 18.Mr Snowdon: Do your records show if there was any opposition to the proposal to provide a section 18?... [Ms Butler]: No, the records do not show any opposition to the section 18, rather a number of recommendations as a result of the consultation between the Applicant and the PKKP people.
  24. ^ Ramsey, Michael (20 November 2020). "Agency blind to WA heritage site removals". The Senior. Retrieved 22 June 2021.
  25. ^ a b "Never Again". Parliament of Australia. 9 December 2020. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  26. ^ a b Higgins, Isabella (9 December 2020). "Rio Tinto should pay compensation for Juukan Gorge caves blast, inquiry recommends". ABC News. Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  27. ^ Wahlquist, Calla; Allam, Lorena (9 December 2020). "Juukan Gorge inquiry: Rio Tinto's decision to blow up Indigenous rock shelters 'inexcusable'". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  28. ^ Kemp, Deanna; Owen, John; Barnes, Rodger (9 December 2020). "Juukan Gorge inquiry puts Rio Tinto on notice, but without drastic reforms, it could happen again". The Conversation. Retrieved 5 January 2021.
  29. ^ a b Cross, Hannah (9 December 2020). "Juukan Gorge inquiry committee says 'never again'". National Indigenous Times. Retrieved 5 January 2021.