Mining firm granted approval to destroy Australian Aboriginal sites

An autonomous truck readies to pick up a load of iron ore at Australia's Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) Chichester Hub, which includes the Christmas Creek iron ore mine, in the Pilbara region.
An autonomous truck readies to pick up a load of iron ore at Australia's Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) Chichester Hub, which includes the Christmas Creek iron ore mine, in the Pilbara region.
Image: REUTERS/Melanie Burton

Mining giant BHP has been given government approval to destroy up to 40 indigenous heritage sites, Australia's Aboriginal Affairs Minister said Thursday, just days after Rio Tinto sparked outrage by damaging ancient rock shelters nearby.

Indigenous traditional owners were left "deeply troubled and saddened" after mining firm Rio Tinto destroyed a 46,000-year-old site last month to expand an iron ore mine, following approval from the Western Australian state government.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said he approved BHP's application to destroy up to 40 Aboriginal sites in remote Pilbara on May 29 -- just three days after the Rio blasts were revealed.

BHP applied to destroy the sites last October as part of the South Flank iron ore mine's Aus$4.5 billion ($3.11 billion) expansion.

The mine is situated on the traditional land of the Banjima people, who signed a land-use agreement in 2015 that Wyatt said included financial benefits and protected 72 culturally significant sites.

The Banjima did not file an official objection to BHP's latest application, but under Western Australian law they are essentially excluded from the government approvals process after signing such land-use agreements.

Wyatt, who is indigenous, said he wanted to see impacts to Aboriginal cultural sites "limited to the practical extent possible".

He said he was reforming heritage legislation so miners would need to negotiate directly with traditional owners over impacts to sites in the future.

"I am also a great believer in self-determination for Aboriginal people and support native title groups using their hard-won rights to make commercial agreements with land users," he added.

Wyatt said he had asked BHP to work with traditional owners to minimise the impact to one site identified by as being of particular cultural significance to the Banjima.

"As with any agreement, some circumstances can change including the understanding of heritage values of particular sites," Wyatt said, and urged those involved to cooperate.

BHP did not respond to requests for comment but the Sydney Morning Herald reported Thursday the miner planned to suspend its expansion pending further scientific review and consultation with the traditional owners.

Iron ore is Australia's top export, worth more than Aus$77 billion to the economy last year.

Much of it is extracted from the sparsely populated Pilbara, where indigenous groups have ownership rights over large swathes of the region.

Rio Tinto has come under significant pressure for its destruction of Aboriginal sites -- including a protest outside its Perth offices this week -- and later issued an apology. 

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