“Apology without action means nothing”: First Nations students denounce the destruction of sacred sites

18 June 2020

On June 17, the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Indigenous Department and the other UMSU student representative departments released a joint statement condemning Rio Tinto’s destruction of a sacred site in the Western Pilbara, referring to the mining company’s decision as “an act of cultural genocide”. 

The statement titled “No Pride in Genocide” said,

“This [destruction] was allowed to commence on Reconciliation week, a week where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander RIGHTS to LAND and SEA [are] supposed to be acknowledged and respected. In a week where the impacts of colonisation, government policies and frontier conflicts has [sic] on Indigenous Australians is meant to be understood. A week where the stories, culture, success, and contribution of Indigenous Australians [are] embraced and celebrated. Instead of any of the above, we are met with an act of cultural genocide, the removal of our past and connection to ancestors and country being harmed.”

Known for its production of iron ore, Rio Tinto is the second-largest mining company in the world. For 2019, the company reported the largest profit in eight years of 10.4 billion USD (more than 14 billion AUD). Farrago has previously reported on the controversial presence of its company representatives at a University of Melbourne careers fair. 

What happened?

In late May 2020, Rio Tinto detonated explosives in the Juukan Gorge area in Western Pilbara, Western Australia (WA). While expanding an iron ore mine, the company destroyed two ancient rock shelters that represented 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage sites. Although the company’s plans were approved in 2013, subsequent archaeological excavations in 2014 revealed several significant ancient artefacts.

These included grinding stones and a 28,000-year-old tool made of bone. Archaeological reports indicate that the devices were some of the oldest examples of these technologies in Australia. 

Most notably, excavations also found a piece of plaited human hair dating back 4,000 years. DNA from the plaited hair has been linked to that of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) true custodians living today. 

During the week of the blast, Rio Tinto claimed that the “expressed concerns of the PKKP did not arise through the engagements that have taken place over many years.”

Burchell Hayes, a spokesperson for the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, rejected this claim and said,

“at all times, the [PKKP Aboriginal Corporation] has been direct and explicit in the archaeological and ethnographic significance of these rock shelters and the importance that they be preserved.”

Hayes continued, “we believe Rio Tinto’s outrageous statement is a bid to minimise the adverse public reaction and community outrage about Sunday’s blast at Juukan Gorge; and the distress and upset caused to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people.”

UMSU Indigenous Department Office Bearers Shanysa McConville and Hope Kuchel emphasised the consequences of the mining blast,

“For this destruction to fall in Reconciliation Week, especially since this year marks twenty years since reconciliation began, it highlights the lack of support for Indigenous communities and disregard for the protection of sacred sites. First Nations people[s] continue to fight for land rights and protection of cultural heritage, which remains a tiring process. When companies are prioritising financial gain over supporting First Nations peoples, we know something is terribly wrong.”

Public outrage and apologies

In its June 9 statement, Reconciliation Australia referred to the blasting activity by Rio Tinto as a “breathtaking breach of a respectful relationship [with the Puutu Kunti Kurama people and Pinikura people].”

Reconciliation Australia is a not-for-profit organisation established in 2001. The organisation promotes and facilitates reconciliation between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It has revoked its endorsement of Rio Tinto and suspended the company from its Reconciliation Action Plan program. 

On June 12, Rio Tinto Chief Executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques issued a public apology

This apology comes more than two weeks after the blast, contextualised by increased global awareness over the treatment of marginalised communities, which the Black Lives Matter protests have brought to the forefront of media attention. 

However, on June 15, a recording of a Rio Tinto staff meeting revealed that the company was “not sorry” for the blast. The Financial Review obtained audio of the company’s Chief Executive of Iron Ore Chris Salisbury reportedly explaining to an employee how the company has responded to criticisms of the destruction. 

“…that’s why we haven’t apologised for the event itself, per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused.” 

In that meeting, Salisbury allegedly told staff members that the company still received support from “political leaders of both sides”. 

Salisbury issued a statement late June 15 in response to the leaked recording, in which he mentions speaking with the PKKP true custodians and that “it was never our intent to cause distress”. 

“While Rio Tinto has apologised for the inadvertent distress caused by their actions, they have failed to admit that it was wrong to carry out the blast in the first place. Despite claiming they are now committed to learning from this incident, an apology without action means nothing. First Nations people, especially the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, need to see Rio Tinto take real responsibility and never allow this to happen again,” McConville and Kuchel told Farrago

Calls to reform Aboriginal heritage laws

While Rio Tinto has not contested the significance of the sacred site, the company states that it was “already work[ing] within all existing frameworks”. Said frameworks include the Aboriginal heritage laws in WA. 

The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) claims the protection of “sacred or otherwise culturally significant” sites from mining and pastoral industries. However, section 18, titled “Consent to certain uses”, allows companies such as Rio Tinto to apply for ministerial permission to destroy sacred sites. 

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt, a Yamatji man, expressed “the pain of administering an outdated and inadequate system that led to this sad and regrettable outcome.”

The sacred site in Juukan Gorge was one of more than four hundred sites that mining companies in WA have applied for permission to disturb, damage or destroy. None of the applications since 2010 have been denied

Wyatt continued: “[The Act] does not provide a useful supporting framework to promote and encourage good relationships between traditional owners, resource companies and other land users.”

Office Bearers McConville and Kuchel surmised the impacts of these events on Indigenous students at the University,

“First Nations students stand in solidarity and mourn with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama [people] and Pinikura people for the loss of their sacred sites and the overarching aspects of culture and identity that were intrinsically connected to it… These destructive acts erase our history and our connection to ancestors and knowledge, which are significant to how we live as First Nations people; when Country is harmed, so are we. First Nations students understand that the importance of these heritage sites cannot be underrated, so it is truly a heartbreaking loss.” 

BHP, another mining giant, has temporarily suspended plans to destroy over 40 sacred sites in Pilbara following the backlash surrounding Rio Tinto’s actions.  

Support for First Nations communities 

While Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell addressed the National Reconciliation Week and promoted this year’s Reconciliation Australia theme of “In this together”, the University has not commented on the destruction of sacred sites during Reconciliation Week. 

“Their silent solidarity with mining corporations in Australia continues to be a point of conflict, and we criticise their failure to speak out about this issue and show support for the affected First Nations communities and the University’s Indigenous students,” said McConville and Kuchel. 

Farrago has previously reported on the University’s ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

According to a University spokesperson, “The University recognises the deep concern and distress created by the destruction of the Aboriginal heritage site at Juukan Gorge. It is hoped that Rio Tinto can work with the Indigenous community to ensure this never happens again.”

June 19, 4:06 PM update.

UMSU President Hannah Buchan told Farrago,

“Non-Indigenous students need to know what atrocities are happening on the land on which they live. The destruction of the sacred site in the Western Pilbara was a cultural genocide. Considering that this happened in National Reconciliation Week, it shows that there is a lot of work to be done in this country about respect and recognition for the traditional owners of the land.”

In response to claims of the University’s silence, Buchan adds,

“The University of Melbourne is a long-time partner of Rio Tinto and it is clear that they would rather preserve their relationship with the mining industry than speak out against these types of atrocities. By giving a platform to Rio Tinto and other mining companies, the University is endorsing their actions. The University needs to show support for First Nations communities and end this relationship.”


Featured photo, “Karajini 20191005_143907 WA” by Iancochrane, is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Editorial note: Farrago would like to thank Shanysa McConville for her guidance in relation to the proper coverage of issues that affect First Nations communities. 

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