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Hannah Sinclair and Karen Michelmore

WA won't ban demolition of Aboriginal heritage sites after destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters

Rio Tinto was given permission to blast Juukan Gorge under Section 18 of WA's Aboriginal Heritage Act.

Western Australia's Government has ruled out further protections for Aboriginal heritage sites at risk of demolition following the destruction of a 46,000-year-old site in the Pilbara.

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt is currently reviewing the Aboriginal Heritage Act, including the controversial Section 18, which legalises the destruction of Aboriginal sites.

But he has rejected calls for a moratorium on any further work already granted under the act.

"We won't be doing a moratorium because I think that would simply cease activity, whether it be Main Roads activity, for example, that doesn't have any contention, or even just local governments putting in work around rivers and creeks," Mr Wyatt told 7.30.

"But what we do and what we always do is ensure that where it comes to those areas that have more significant sites, we always encourage those miners … and the traditional owners to have their own heritage agreements and enter their own Indigenous land-use agreements that usually have much stronger heritage processes."

It follows Rio Tinto's recent demolition of rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara under a Section 18 approval.

Rio Tinto has vowed to advocate for changes to laws to better protect ancient Aboriginal heritage after what it said was a "misunderstanding" led to the destruction of the Pilbara site.

The company's chief executive of iron ore, Chris Salisbury, said he had been "rocked personally" by the situation.

"I'd like to say very sorry to the Puuti Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People," he told 730.

"We've obviously had some misunderstanding. We thought we had a shared understanding of the future of the caves, that they would in fact be mined as part of our normal mining sequence."

He said the company was determined to learn lessons from the incident.

"Firstly, we'll work closely with traditional owners on the Juukan Gorge area in terms of other sites and how we manage those, that's an urgent matter," he said.

"The second thing is we've committed to a comprehensive review with board oversight and there will be more announcements about that in the next week.

"Lastly, we'll work with traditional owners, and through our review if we identify issues that we believe should result in legislative change to the West Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act, then we've committed we will advocate with traditional owners for those changes."

'We can't let this happen again'

Both the office of the Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians and the WA Aboriginal Affairs Department were warned by traditional owners the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation that the work was imminent.

Federal Minister Ken Wyatt told 7.30 he would work with the State Government and Prime Minister's Office "to ensure that we do not have a repeat of the destruction of any Aboriginal site in this country".

But some are wary about such promises, particularly if the current Section 18 approvals still stand.

Clinton Walker, a Ngarluma traditional owner from the Pilbara, said if the Federal Government was serious, it would act immediately.

"If they are going to abolish that particular part of the act, they need to not destroy any of those sites and leave them untouched," he told 7.30.

"Mr [Ken] Wyatt, I hope you are serious about what you are saying, I hope you do what you say you are going to do about it.

"Unfortunately, I won't believe it until I see it happen because too often, politicians make promises and they don't follow through with those promises.

"If they can abolish Section 18 within the Aboriginal Heritage Act and also strengthen that act so there aren't any loop holes to go around it, that's when I will know that the Government is serious because this is an atrocious loss of heritage belonging to Aboriginal people, as well as Australians and the world. And we can't let this happen again."

There have been 463 applications to impact West Australian Aboriginal heritage sites on mining leases under Section 18 in the past 10 years. None has been rejected.

'This is our history'

The Pilbara region contains a rich collection of culturally significant sites stretching back tens of thousands of years.

Mr Walker is still finding old sites, even today.

In fact, while filming with 7.30, he stumbled upon two carvings, one of a dugong up to 5,000 years old and another of an emu eating a snake up to 10,000 years old on a rock at Cowrie Bay near Karratha.

"This is our history," he said.

"When I see this, it says to me that my people have always been here, that they've always had things available to them like food and water. When I see that there, I feel pride about my own culture.

"When these companies destroy this sort of thing they are destroying our history."

He said he knew all too well the impact of the loss of such sites.

The Ngarluma people, like other groups, have been fighting to protect their cultural history for generations, with countless sites destroyed to make way for dams, railways and industrial plants in recent decades, often without consultation.

One example of many, he said, was Harding Dam, built in the 1980s as Karratha's main water supply in a sacred area full of cultural sites.

"It wasn't until construction of the dam [that] Aboriginal people were aware of what was going on. It was too late for us to do anything about it," Mr Walker said.

"All the sacred sites along here ended up under water.

"When you lose a site, they are gone forever. You can no longer use it, you can no longer learn about it, you can no longer visit the site and you can no longer practise the culture, the heritage of that area, and share the culture with the neighbouring groups who have a connection to that place too.

"It means it's lost to all future generations. It's irreplaceable."

'I thought they were serious about these things'

Mr Walker is angry about the loss of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters, particularly as a former Rio Tinto employee who held the company in high regard as he worked to improve its understanding of Aboriginal culture.

It has emerged the "high archaeological significance" of the site was reported in a survey as early as 2013.

"I thought they were serious about these things but it's very frustrating and saddening to know that they could allow something so sacred, so ancient, so significant to not only Aboriginal people, the traditional owners of the area, the PKKP people, but also to us as neighbours," he said.

"We have all been here in that same period as them as neighbours. That affects all of us, and I find that to be a spit in the face."

Watch this story on 7.30.

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