Just because you legally can, should you?

June 11, 2020

The recent destruction of the significant Juukan Gorge rockshelters just days prior to National Reconciliation Week by Rio Tinto highlights the need to expediate essential reform to Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.  

The rockshelters destroyed by the actions of Rio Tinto during Reconciliation Week were of significant cultural and spiritual importance to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. Archaeological evidence suggests the sites dated back 46,000 years, making it one of the oldest known areas for human occupation within the Australian deserts.  

The destruction by Rio Tinto, while legal pursuant to a Notice issued under s18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act in 2013, highlights the need for reform of deficiencies in the legislation that  fail to take into account findings which may occur after a Notice is issued. 

Jo Byrne, ALHR Indigenous Rights Committee Co-Chair said, “The legislation appears to presuppose that there will not be any more significant archaeological finds in an under-explored region of the Pilbara, which is clearly not the case. Urgent reform of processes and consultation needs to be included within the current legislation to ensure cultural genocide of this kind never happens again.” 

Reform of both the State and Federal law has been called for by The Hon Ben Wyatt MLA, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs with a review currently underway of the WA Act. Mrs Byrne continued, “This is an invaluable opportunity which must be seized upon to ensure legislation is put in place that not only recognises the voice of the traditional landowners but honours it and provides a truly collaborative respectful approach to conservation of traditional sacred lands.” 

Byrne added that “Destroying Indigenous peoples’ land erodes any trust that has been developed. It displays a blatant disdain towards Indigenous people, their culture and spirituality. ‘Sorry’ is not enough when the law enables repeated atrocities such as this to occur.”

Legislation needs to provide clarity and certainty for all involved to enable the continued development of collaborative partnerships between traditional landowners and stakeholders within the region.

Contact: Matt Mitchell, ALHR media manager 0431 980 365.

Photo credit: National Indigenous Times