By Tess Ingram and Marta Pascual Juanola
February 23, 2021 — 4.19pm Larger text size
A registered Aboriginal heritage site has been damaged at one of BHP’s Pilbara iron ore mines, despite the major miner pledging in June to consult with traditional owners before disturbing sites in the area.
In late January, a culturally significant rock shelter was impacted at BHP’s Mining Area C project in the Pilbara, causing a rockfall at the site. It is understood neither BHP or the Banjima people are clear on what caused the damage.
Mining Area C is adjacent to BHP’s $US3.06 billion ($4 billion) South Flank project, which is under construction and will be the largest iron ore mining and processing facility ever built in Western Australia. It is located on Banjima’s traditional lands in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, 130 kilometres north-west of Newman.
The news comes almost a year after fellow Pilbara miner Rio Tinto drew international condemnation when it destroyed 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters while blasting at Juukan Gorge in the same region.
he destruction of Juukan went against the wishes of the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, shocked investors, forced the resignations of former chief executive Jean-Sebastian Jacques and two of his deputies, and sparked a federal parliamentary inquiry.
On May 29 2020, just five days after Rio’s blast at Juukan, WA Treasurer and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt gave BHP approval to proceed with work at South Flank that would result in the destruction of 40 Banjima heritage sites. That approval was provided under the controversial section 18 of WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, which the WA government is in the process of reforming.
In a statement in June, BHP said it would “not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation with the Banjima people. That consultation will be based on our commitment to understanding the cultural significance of the region and on the deep respect we have for the Banjima people and their heritage.”
It is understood that commitment extends to all sites identified within Section 18 approvals, however, while the rock shelter was approved under a Section 18 application, BHP did not deliberately proceed with work that could affect the site.
BHP President Minerals Australia, Edgar Basto, said the rock fall at the site was identified as part of monitoring on January 29.
“This site is not part of current mining operations. The cause of the rock fall is not known,” Mr Basto said in a statement.
“The heritage site was first recorded in 2005 with the Traditional Owners of the land, the Banjima. The site does not contain rock art or archaeological deposits, and could not be dated. Section 18 approval was subsequently obtained following consultation with the Banjima and with their support.
“We notified the Banjima Traditional Owners of the rock fall, and I and Western Australia Iron Ore President Brandon Craig subsequently met with Banjima Elders as part of the Banjima Heritage Advisory Council, and agreed to a joint investigation with the Banjima to determine the cause of the rock fall. We are committed to learning from the outcomes of the joint investigation.
“The relationships we hold with the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate are critically important to BHP. Over many years, we have built a strong relationship with the Banjima people based on deep respect for their heritage and their connection to country. This includes the establishment of the Banjima Heritage Advisory Council last year. We will continue to work with the Banjima in a spirit of respect and cooperation.”
A spokesman for the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation confirmed an investigation had been launched into the incident.
“In late January 2021, BHP submitted a report to Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC (BNTAC) outlining rockfall impact to a registered Banjima site, located within BHP’s Mining Area C,” the BNTAC spokesperson said.
“Following the initial report, Banjima’s newly established South Flank Heritage Advisory Council — together with BNTAC and BHP — launched an investigation into the cause of the rockfall.
Banjima’s South Flank Heritage committee met with BHP executives on 11 February to clarify the initial report’s details and progress of the investigation.”
The Banjima People told the Juukan inquiry they “have a long and sometimes difficult relationship with mining companies” and the “cumulative destruction of our country is something which sits uneasily with our people”.
“We are resolute in our position that the events at Juukan Gorge, the subject of this inquiry,
and the destruction of Aboriginal heritage generally — without due regard to the cultural
custodians of that heritage — must not be repeated, nor should it continue,” Senior Banjima elder and BNTAC chairman Maitland Parker told the inquiry.
In the wake of the Juukan disaster, BHP and BNTAC established the Heritage Advisory Council in September to provide input into mine planning at South Flank.
The council comprises of Banjima elders and senior BHP representatives.
Mr Basto said in September the council would “ensure on-going high level dialogue between us on important cultural heritage and other matters”.