BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 22 DEC 20

Stories We Missed in 2020: Rio Tinto’s Destruction of the Juukan Gorge Proved (Again) Nothing Is Sacred Except Profit

Mining executives knew the spiritual value of the ancient Indigenous site – and they blew it up anyway

BY Jennifer Higgie in Opinion | 22 DEC 20

On 24 May 2020, in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, the mining giant Rio Tinto blew up a 46,000-year-old sacred site: the Juukan Gorge rock shelters. The traditional owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP), only learnt about the company’s intentions 11 days before the blast; they issued an urgent request to the Western Australian government to halt the destruction, but to no avail. Carol Meredith, the chief executive of PKKP Aboriginal Corporation has made clear that her people are ‘not anti-mining’ and have financially benefited from their relationship to mining companies. Yet, she explained to the ABC that their hands were tied: ‘If we were to proceed to seeking an emergency declaration, we were required to seek permission from Rio before we took that option, and we had to give 30 days’ notice and table every document we were going to use in that application.’ 

The PKKP are devastated. But unlike comparable recent tragedies – such as the 2019 fire that ravaged Notre Dame de Paris or the demolition of much of the ancient Syrian city Palmyra in 2015 at the hands of ISIS or the blowing up of the sixth century Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in Afghanistan – what happened in Australia was entirely legal. In 2013, a year before surveys revealed the significance of the location, Rio Tinto was granted permission to demolish Juukan Gorge – which had evidence of continual human occupation through the last Ice Age – in order to expand their iron ore mining operations. Rio Tinto knew exactly what it was doing: in fact, an archaeologist hired by the company described one of the rock shelters as a place of ‘the highest archaeological significance in Australia’

Juukan caves
Juukan Gorge rock shelters before the blast, 2020. Courtesy: Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

So why did they do it? In the federal parliamentary inquiry that took place in August, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, Rio Tinto’s then global CEO, was blunt. He told the committee that the company had reviewed four options, three of which would have preserved the site, but they decided to go ahead with the fourth – which resulted in the destruction of the two rock shelters – because it would result in accruing eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore, which is valued at AU$135 million. To put this in perspective: before Notre Dame’s fire was fully extinguished, a fundraising campaign to restore the c.900-year-old-church had raised more than €1 billion (AU$1.62 billion). In 2019, Rio Tinto registered a profit of $US8 billion (AU$10.62 billion).

What Rio Tinto destroyed wasn’t just cultural artefacts and sacred objects – including a 4,000-year-old rope of plaited human hair that has a direct genetic link to the modern-day PKKP people. The Juukan Gorge is a place of profound spiritual significance. In a film made by the Guardian, traditional owners – who were required to wear Rio Tinto hard-hats to visit the site – gaze at the rubble and attempt to explain what the violence meted out to the rock shelters means to them. J Boy Ashburton asks: ‘A lot of spirits have been living here for many, many years. Now they’ve been disturbed. Where they going to go?’ In a voice trembling with emotion, Harold Ashburton says: ‘What they’ve done here is taken everything away from the people […] they’ve destroyed our country people’s heritage.’ When the parliamentary committee travelled from Canberra to the Pilbara, Burchell Hayes, a spokesman for the PKKP told them: ‘The Juukan Gorge is known to be a place where the spirits of our relatives who have passed away, even recently, have come to rest […] Myself, my family, our elders and our ancestors are in mourning at the desecration of our sacred site. The disaster has now left a gaping hole in our ability to pass on our heritage to our children and grandchildren.’

Central Park Tower (Rio Tinto sign), Perth, Australia.
Central Park Tower (Rio Tinto sign), Perth, Australia, 2019. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The fall-out has been seismic. Protests took place across Australia and Rio Tinto declared that it ‘deeply regrets’ the events at Juukan Gorge. Its three top executives – Jean-Sebastien Jacques, iron ore chief Chris Salisbury and corporate affairs chief Simone Niven – all resigned (albeit retaining their long-term incentives), shareholders are up in arms and, as mentioned, a federal enquiry into the travesty was swiftly convened. (In a terrible irony, spokespeople for the PKKP, who were subjected to a ‘gag’ order, had to seek permission from Rio Tinto to speak to the inquiry without repercussion.) The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia published its searing interim report in early December: it deemed Rio Tinto’s actions ‘inexcusable’, stated that ‘the blast devastated a place of personal, community, national and international significance’ and that ‘they knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway’. It concluded that the PKKP faced a ‘perfect storm’ and were let down by ‘Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Australian Government, their own lawyers and Native Title law’. Among its many recommendations is restitution to traditional owners, the reconstruction of the caves and an immediate review of the laws that allowed the annihilation of Juukan Gorge to go ahead. The title of the report is: ‘Never Again’. I recall the words of Harold Ashburton: ‘Don’t trust the people you put the trust to. Make ’em work hard for the trust. Otherwise you end up with nothing.’ 

Main image: Protesters gathered at Rio Tinto’s headquarters in Perth after it destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in the Pilbara region. Courtesy: ABC Perth’s Facebook page 

Jennifer Higgie is a writer who lives in London. Her book The Mirror and the Palette – Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, and she is currently working on another – about women, art and the spirit world.