How much is a 46,000-year-old archaeological site, with incredible evidence of early human grind-stone technology, worth?
Less than the vein of iron ore beneath it, according to Rio Tinto.
On May 24, just days before the Stolen Generations commemorations on National Sorry Day, mining giant Rio Tinto detonated explosives at Juukan Gorge in the western Pilbara region. Two ancient rock shelters of rich cultural significance were completely destroyed.
The site contained artefacts – such as tools fashioned from stone and bone, and preserved plaited hair – dating back far earlier than other comparable sites in the region. An archaeological excavation in 2014 revealed human settlement in the area took place four times earlier than was previously believed.
Rio Tinto blasted the area with the full approval of the Western Australian state government. Under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, companies can seek exemptions allowing them to carry out work on protected Aboriginal sites. This was granted to Rio Tinto in 2013 to expand their Brockman 4 mine into the gorge.
Calls for reforming the Heritage Act, while welcome, do not go far enough. Big businesses won’t let toothless laws get in the way of their profits. We only need to look at Rio Tinto’s record as one of the worst human rights violators of any mining company to see this. As long as there is money to be made, these corporate criminals will find a way.
This act of cultural violence is a damning example of why the fight for Indigenous liberation is inextricably linked to the fight to overthrow and replace the capitalist system. Indigenous heritage cannot be securely protected when it is at the mercy of private ownership and profit. Ordinary people did not benefit from the blasting of Juukan Gorge, only Rio Tinto’s shareholders.
To save culturally significant sites, they must be taken away from the control of private companies. Juukan Gorge is on one of many vast tracts of land owned by corporate giants like Rio Tinto, land that was stolen from its original owners. Natural resources should not be exploited for private profit!
These companies, and the land they operate on, should all be brought into collective ownership and democratic community control. Indigenous owners should have genuine power over their lands.
It is in the interests of all working people to fight for a society based on public ownership, democratic planning and the sharing of resources. Only a socialist system can ensure that cultural atrocities like this never happen again.
By Jeremy Trott