SYDNEY – The blasting of two ancient rock caves – part of a 46,000-year-old indigenous heritage site – in Australia by mining company Rio Tinto for expanding its iron ore extraction operations has sparked a wave of indignation and anger in the country.
Indigenous Affairs minister Ken Wyatt told public broadcaster ABC on Friday that the destruction of the indigenous heritage was extremely disappointing and “incomprehensible,” although adding that Rio Tinto had expressed regret for the incident, and it appeared to be a “genuine mistake.”
Rio Tinto had on May 24 detonated explosives close to the Juukan gorge, a remote area considered sacred by the Puuti Kunti Kurram indigenous community and situated in the Pilbara region in northwest Australia.
The mining giant had obtained permission for blasting in the area in 2013, but a year later, important archaeological discoveries were made in the caves, with evidence that it could have been the oldest shelter in the interior regions of Australia to have been occupied by humans in the Stone Age.
The destruction occurred just two days before the National Sorry day on May 26, which marks the historic mistreatment and abuses committed against the original residents of the continent since its colonization in the 18th century.
Indigenous media outlet Ngaarda Media Pilbara condemned the blasting on its social media handles and highlighted the “terrible irony” that news of the destruction became known only when the PKKP – an association of the local indigenous community – contacted Rio Tinto for accessing the site for the NAIDOC – a week-long celebration of indigenous history and traditions held in July.
This is not the first time that indigenous heritage has been destroyed in the country, and prehistoric rock paintings in the Burrup Peninsula in northwestern Australia – a gallery of more than a million petroglyphs – has become increasingly endangered by a gas project, experts have warned.
The Australian Archaeological Association said in a statement earlier this week that there were “important lessons” to be learned from the Juukan fiasco and urged the government of the state of Western Australia and business leaders to establish a better protection framework for the country’s heritage.
“The Taliban blew up the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Now Rio Tinto has blown up an older Aboriginal heritage site at Juukan Gorge, Western Australia. Both were government-approved. One was for the profit of religion, the other for the religion of profit,” local nonprofit Bob Brown Foundation, which works to protect heritage, tweeted earlier this week.
Peter Stone, the UNESCO chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace at the Newcastle University, United Kingdom told ABC that the destruction of the Juukan caves marked a “black day” in history, and compared it to the razing of ancient artifacts and sites carried out in recent years by the Islamic State.