On May 24 last year, mining giant Rio Tinto legally destroyed ancient and sacred Aboriginal rock shelters in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge to expand an iron ore mine.
Public reaction prompted a parliamentary inquiry. After nearly 18 months of presentations and hearings, the Joint Standing Committee released its final report, The Way Forward, this week.
In presenting the report, committee chairman and Liberal MP Warren Ench said that while the destruction was a disaster for the traditional owners – the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinicura peoples – it was “not unique.”
Rio Tinto’s actions are part of a wider discriminatory development model in Australia. Traditional owners are denied the right to object, and as a result, Aboriginal heritage is regularly destroyed.
The committee’s final report addresses the complex issues of protecting cultural heritage in Australia. He recommends major legislative reforms, including:
new Aboriginal National Cultural Heritage Act, jointly developed with indigenous peoples
new national council for the protection of heritage
revising the 1993 Indigenous Land Title Act to address the imbalance of power in negotiations based on free, prior and informed consent.
The report is clear about the need for change, although it will not be easy to achieve.
Problems that are difficult to solve
The committee’s interim report was published last December. From it, we learned how Rio Tinto silences traditional owners and prevents heritage professionals from raising concerns. For Rio Tinto, production was a priority, not heritage protection.
The Way Forward looks at the tragedy of the Juukan Gorge in a broader context. This sheds light on how the regulatory system empowered Rio Tinto to destroy the caves and prevented the people of Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinicura from doing anything.
It also demonstrates how the system has grossly violated the interests of indigenous peoples for decades. Governments were able to draw conclusions about cultural heritage without proper consultation and consent.
The report focuses on creating the right regulatory framework. He manages to collect in one place a wide and complex set of controversial issues. But many of these issues are highly controversial, which has hampered previous attempts to resolve them.
Two committee members, Senator Dean Smith and MP George Christensen, no longer agree with the rest of the committee on the need for the Commonwealth to set standards for state laws to protect cultural heritage. They say it will restrict mining and give anti-mining activists too much power.
In contrast, Green and Gunnai Senator Gunditjmara and Jab Wurrung woman Lydia Thorpe support traditional owners with “veto power” to destroy their cultural heritage.
Read more: Exploring the Juukan Gorge: A Critical Turning Point in Indigenous Authority over Land Use
Western Australian Prime Minister Mark McGowan and several industry organizations have rejected calls from the investigation to strengthen the federal government’s role in protecting cultural heritage across Australia. Western Australia has yet to pass a heritage bill, which the prime minister said will address issues raised in the final report.
Aboriginal groups disagree that final control over the destruction of cultural heritage should remain with the minister. These groups presented their concerns to the United Nations.
One of the most controversial issues raised in the final report is the need to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of traditional owners in accordance with Australian federal and state law, which gives them the right to manage their own heritage properties.
Change Needed Despite Pressure from Australian Recovery
Now is not the ideal time for such a major change. Australia is heading for federal elections. The federal government is focused on vaccinating against COVID-19, opening borders and rebuilding the country’s economy after the pandemic.
The mining sector is at the center of Australia’s economic recovery as climate change stimulates demand for minerals for the transition to energy. Australian states and territories are focused on mining these minerals for green and renewable technologies.
Green technologies will require increased extraction of copper, nickel, lithium, cobalt and other essential minerals, often found in indigenous lands and territories. This will put additional pressure on the consent processes that A Way Forward so strongly recommends.
Read More: How Rio Tinto Can Ensure Transparency and Independence in Aboriginal Heritage Review
Will anything really change?
So far, no major mining company has endorsed the committee’s recommendations for regulatory reform. But there are some positive prospects for change.
The investigation helped raise public awareness and understanding of Australia’s indigenous heritage and the need to protect it. Australia’s adherence to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has come under national and international scrutiny. This added weight to the recommendations of the investigation and increased the importance of free, prior and informed consent.
Institutional investors such as HESTA and the Australian Pension Investor Council have publicly endorsed the investigation’s recommendations.
In the absence of regulatory reform to address systemic issues, indigenous groups such as the National Council for Indigenous Land Titles continue to work with investor groups and leading industry bodies to bring about change through the development of voluntary guidelines and other formal commitments.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt has shown a collaborative design capability with the National Australian Agency for Bridging the Gap update.
Returning responsibility for cultural heritage to the portfolio of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, as recommended in the final report, could be a positive step.
Nothing short of the reform recommended in the report takes into account the lessons learned from the Juukan gorge. The public must be vigilant and hold business, investors and policymakers accountable when pushing for meaningful change.
Read more: We need lithium for clean energy, but the planned Serbian mine Rio Tinto reminds us that this should not happen at any cost