In May 2020, Rio Tinto destroyed two rock shelters in the Jucan Gorge in the Pilbara as part of its operations to feed an insatiable global appetite for iron ore.
The spiritual and cultural ties of the people of the Jukan Gorge of Putu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura for nearly 46,000 years were shaken by an explosion. Shockwaves also resonated globally. People took to social media and the streets to express their anger over Rio Tinto’s antics.
While the final report of the Jukan Gorge investigation has yet to be released, interim findings suggest that the investigation has set a new precedent for legal codes to align with ethical standards for Aboriginal land management.
These results reflect a shift in the balance of rights in Australia – and that shift is leaning towards Aboriginal peoples.
Read more: Jukan Gorge investigation puts Rio Tinto on notice, but without drastic reforms, it could happen again
Jukan Gorge tragedy: ‘Never again’
These destructive actions of Rio Tinto were legal under Section 18 of the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, despite shareholders and stakeholders believing the explosion to be unconscionable.
While the Act was designed to protect sites of cultural importance to Aboriginal people, it has not stopped their destruction.
Juukan Gorge is “of the highest archaeological importance in Australia.” More than 7,000 artifacts have been discovered in the rock shelters, including a 4,000-year-old belt made from human hair from the direct ancestors of the current traditional owners.
Río Tinto was aware of the cultural value of living rock shelters for the Putu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, “but blew it up anyway”.
Three senior officials responsible for the decision, including the chief executive, resigned from their jobs after the blast.
A “Never Again” national inquiry followed and Rio Tinto was ordered to provide compensation to the Putu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.
A turning point in First Nations rights to land
We are witnessing a turning point in the control and management of tribal lands and the flow of benefits from these lands. For indigenous peoples, land is central to self-determination.
Indigenous people are part of their traditional lands and derive nourishment from them. Control over their land is also important for the economic prosperity of indigenous peoples.
This turning point is being driven by regulatory changes – such as the recommendations of the Jukan Gorge investigation – as well as changes in environmental and social governance, increased economic freedom and increased Indigenous representation in parliaments.
Read more: ‘Though we didn’t create these problems, we suffer them’: 3 ways you can help support NAIDOC’s call to heal the country
Regulatory Changes in Environmental and Social Governance
Australia is moving towards owning 80-90% of its land mass under native title and land rights claims and agreements.
The “Never Again” report’s recommendations for stronger protection and informed consent have important implications for the governance of these lands. Transferring land and water custody back into the hands of indigenous traditional owners allows them to receive an equal share of profits from the resources extracted from their lands.
The rise of environmental and social governance globally is supporting a shift in power back to indigenous custodians of the land.
In addition, the global march towards zero-carbon emissions is creating an influx of capital towards markets that meet carbon emissions. And Sustainable Development Goals. This includes renewable energy and circular food production. This de-carbonization of economies has been termed “Carbonomics”.
These sustainable practices are an integral part of tribal land management. This is why indigenously owned and managed operations are informing Carbonemic solutions and attracting Carbonemic capital investment.
Economic freedom that provides hope for the future
The Australian Indigenous Procurement Policy has begun mandating minimum procurement targets for contracts awarded to Indigenous-owned businesses. It has the potential to increase indigenous participation in local and global economies.
The evolution of carbonnomics also reflects a shift towards environmentally and sustainable forms of commerce that are bringing indigenous land and water management to the forefront of business operations and leadership.
The powerful combination of investments in indigenous land management systems, recommendations in indigenous procurement policy, and rising consumer demand for indigenously-owned goods and services are creating conditions for a boom in indigenous-trade.
These conditions provide opportunities for economic freedom and self-determination in indigenous commerce. Indigenous entrepreneurship and businesses are being supported through initiatives such as the Dilin Duwa Center for Indigenous Business Leadership.
Read more: Jukan Gorge: how could they not know? (And how can we be sure they will in the future?)
However, hearing Indigenous voices at the national level requires Indigenous representation at the highest levels of government, as well as in the corporate, education and community sectors.
As seen by the reaction of Rio Tinto shareholders, investors and the media are holding corporations and their officials accountable for the treatment of indigenous peoples and their lands.
There is more work to be done to ensure that all indigenous peoples are at the center of their respective countries’ land and water decisions.
Nevertheless, these changes are meeting to give power back to the indigenous people. The people of the First Nations needed to be the rightful authority in control, management, and beneficiaries of the land. This will turn the narrative from pain to power.