Catholics In Coalition for Justice and Peace

Blog Post

Letter to the Minister regarding Rio Tinto's destruction of Sacred Sites

Posted 25 Jun 2020 08:00AM

Updated on 25 Jun 2020 09:16AM

Letter to the Minister

Dear Minister

I write on behalf of Catholics in Coalition for Justice and Peace Sydney,  to express our deep dismay at the wanton destruction of the two sacred sites at Juukan Gorge  WA by Rio Tinto Ltd.  As a faith-based organisation we understand the spiritual importance of sacred places in our lives and so appreciate, to the extent we can as non-Aboriginal people,  the distress the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people must be feeling at this terrible loss to their culture, history and spirituality.

We know that Aboriginal cultural heritage is a fundamental part of Aboriginal community life and cultural identity. It also  has global significance, and forms an important component of the heritage of all Australians. These sacred sites gave Aboriginal people, and the world, a unique link to 46,000 years of Indigenous history, including 4000-year-old genetic traces linked to the current traditional owners. The barbarity of this act compares with the Taliban's demolition of the 5th Century Buddhas of Bamyan that outraged people around the world.  These much more ancient and significant sites seem not to have raised similar outrage among Australians.

Companies such as Rio Tinto just do not learn.Time has long passed for our major corporates to put respect for humanity and heritage before profits. The destruction of this culturally significant Aboriginal site is not an isolated incident. We understand Rio Tinto was acting within the law. In 2013, Rio Tinto was given ministerial consent to damage the Juukan Gorge caves. One year later, an archaeological dig unearthed incredible artefacts, such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair, and evidence that the site was much older than originally thought. But state laws let Rio Tinto charge ahead nevertheless. Its action may have been legal but it ceratainly was not morally so. This failure to put timely and adequate regulatory safeguards in place reveals a disregard and a disrespect for sacred Aboriginal sites.    
We urge you as Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and your Government to change the current unsatisfactory Heritage Laws so this kind of outrageous behaviour by mining companies can never happen again.

Yours sincerely                                                                                                                                                                                         

Margaret Hinchey
For Anne Lane, Convenor, CCJP.

Response from the Minister

Dear Ms Hinchley

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters is terribly upsetting for the traditional owners who have lost an irreplaceable spiritual and emotional connection to an ancestral past that continues to nourish their contemporary cultural life.

This incident highlights the current Aboriginal Heritage Act is woefully inadequate and why the McGowan Government is progressing modern Aboriginal heritage protection laws.

Under the current legislation, a section 18 Consent cannot be reviewed or revoked by the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee or the Minister.

The McGowan Government is progressing new cultural heritage legislation to better protect Aboriginal heritage in Western Australia.

The proposed new Aboriginal Heritage legislation focuses on agreement-making between traditional owners and proponents. It will provide for agreements between traditional owners and proponents to include a process to consider new information that may come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the agreements by mutual consent. The legislation will also provide options for appeal should either party not be compliant with the agreement.

The section 18 process under the current legislation will not exist in the proposed new legislation.

Thank you for your interest in this matter.

Yours sincerely

Ben Wyatt