Grieving after Rio Tinto blast, Aboriginal owners fear Fortescue plans

The traditional owners of Western Australia’s ancient Juukan Gorge have expressed concerns about iron ore miner Fortescue applying to mine culturally significant land close to the 46,000-year-old heritage site destroyed by Rio Tinto earlier this year.

Appearing at a federal parliamentary inquiry launched into the blasting of two rock shelters at the gorge in May, representatives of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation said on Monday they had lost an important cultural “anchor” and were suffering great spiritual, emotional and physical pain.

The site at Juukan Gorge, before it was destroyed by Rio Tinto, held evidence of human habitation dating back 46,000 years.
The site at Juukan Gorge, before it was destroyed by Rio Tinto, held evidence of human habitation dating back 46,000 years.Credit:

Burchell Hayes, a traditional owner, was driving back from Port Hedland with four of his grandsons when he heard of the site’s destruction and was overcome by feelings of grief, guilt and a “sense of failure” that he was unable to preserve and pass on such important heritage to them.

“Their presence had a huge impact on how I felt, it felt really terrible as a grandfather,” he told the inquiry.


“We will do our utmost to recover what we can from the rubble of Juukan Gorge. We will make sure that this place forever remains important as an anchor to our ancestors. We will also keep it as a permanent reminder to all of us of how fragile our heritage can be in the face of action by those who do not value it as much as we do.”

Rio Tinto, which has admitted multiple failings, publicly apologised and is seeking to repair relations with the PKKP, has agreed to a temporary moratorium on works disturbing significant sites in the area surrounding the gorge and is reviewing its plans.

However, representatives of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation told the inquiry the group was concerned after discovering the Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest-backed Fortescue Metals Group had applied to turn exploration leases into mining leases in the same region.

“This moratorium area is where we’re going to be having discussions and furthering our understanding of this country because it relates directly to Juukan Gorge and the rock shelters,” PKKP cultural heritage manager Heather Builth said, adding that the group only learned of Fortescue’s plans last week.

“We weren’t told of this, we found it out ourselves … we’re very worried.”

Dr Builth said the PKKP had approached Fortescue to convey their concerns and told the inquiry the move was “insensitive to say the least … unconscionable to say the most”.

The decision by Rio Tinto to blast through two ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge left the land’s traditional owners, investors and the wider public incensed, eventually leading to the resignation of Rio’s chief executive Jean-Sebastian Jacques and two of his deputies.

The loss of the site, which showed evidence of continual human occupation dating back 46,000 years, with direct DNA linkage to today’s PKKP people, has put the entire mining industry on notice.

Although the blast was legally sanctioned under Western Australian law as part of a planned expansion of Rio’s Brockman 4 iron ore mine, it has highlighted the power imbalance between mining giants and Indigenous communities and raised questions about the need to afford greater powers to traditional owners in order to safeguard significant sites on their ancestral land.

Mr Hayes on Monday urged the inquiry’s committee members to make sure that changes to the system were made to prevent such a tragedy from happening again.

“We need to be able to wind back approvals which still threaten our heritage [and] we appeal to you to take our suggested changes to legislation seriously and make these happen as a matter of urgency,” he said. “You have it in your power to stop this unfettered deletion of our ancestry.”

A Rio Tinto spokesman on Monday said the company wanted to reiterate that what happened at Juukan Gorge was wrong and “we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation”.

Fortescue was contacted for comment.

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