A multinational mining company has temporarily put the breaks on its plans to destroy dozens of ingenious heritage sites in Western Australia, saying it “will not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation” with the traditional owners, the Banjima people.
On May 29, the mining corporation BHP Billiton was granted approval to expand development at the South Flank mine in the central Pilbara region of Western Australia, a multi-billion-dollar mining site that’s fast becoming one of the largest iron ore operations in the world.
Internal documents seen by The Guardian show the development threatened to disturb or destroy between 40 and 86 significant Aboriginal sites, including a handful of rock shelters that were occupied between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, along with a number of archaeological sites that contain ancient artifacts, artworks, and other objects of cultural importance.
"As a matter of lore and culture shared with other traditional owners across Australia and the world, the Banjima people do not support the destruction of sites of cultural significance," Maitland Parker, chairman of the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, said in a statement.
Following the revelations, the mining giant has now said it will halt the development and engage in further consultation with the local Banjima people.
“We will not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation with the Banjima people," BHP announced in a statement.
"That consultation will be based on our commitment to understanding the cultural significance of the region. This will include further scientific study and discussion on mitigation and preservation."
Any activity that could destroy or disrupt any Aboriginal site must first apply to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee under the 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act. However, under Section 18 of the Act, the land users can still go ahead with their development if they "conclude that impact to a site is unavoidable" and they get the consent of the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, even if the traditional owners object.
Western Australia's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said he had approved BHP’s application to “impact” the sites on May 29, adding "no objections" to the plan were filed.
The 48-year-old Aboriginal Heritage Act has come under a lot of criticism for being insensitive to Aboriginal concerns and favoring mining opportunities. There is no statutory requirement for an Indigenous person to be on the committee and there’s no right of appeal against a committee decision.
This recent decision likely comes off the back of a huge public outcry over an ancient sacred Aboriginal site in Western Australia that was destroyed by the mining company Rio Tinto last month. The caves were first occupied by Aboriginal people over 46,000 years ago, making them some of the oldest inhabited caves on the west Hamersley Plateau, and contained a treasure trove of significant artifacts dating back as far 28,000 years ago, including tools and sacred objects.