The Anglo-Australian multinational company Rio Tinto – the largest iron ore mining company in the world – demolished two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in May. What is particularly disturbing about this event is that Rio Tinto was apparently acting entirely within the law, which is to say that this kind of tragic and wanton destruction will continue to happen unless stricter regulations are enacted. The sites were located on the ancestral lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura, or PKKP, people in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Anthropological studies commissioned by Rio Tinto itself confirmed that the caves were of “the highest archaeological significance,” containing an “enormous museum of information about [the PKKP people’s] ancestors’ work and lives.”
The conflict between industry and heritage that we are witnessing today is of course not a new phenomenon. Indeed, in Australia, it has been a persistent problem since at least the early 1960s when the mining and extraction of iron ore in the Pilbara region began. But the struggle can and should be seen also within the larger context of the marginalization, subjugation and decimation of the Aboriginal peoples that has been the story of their ongoing plight since 1788 when British settlers began colonizing the Australian mainland. Not until 1965 did most Aboriginal Australians enjoy full citizenship or voting rights; and it would take six more years before they were included on the national census. Australia’s indigenous people constitute only two percent of the population and yet are 28 percent of Australia’s prisoner demographic.
The unrelenting destruction of indigenous heritage sites is entirely consistent with the same ideology that has driven Australia’s aggressive campaign of deforestation. Both are expressions of one and the same policy of uncompromising colonization. Over the last 200 years Australia has lost 25 percent of its rainforest, 45 percent of open forest, and 32 percent of woodland forest. In fact, among developed countries Australia has one of the highest rates of deforestation, which has led to the annihilation of much of its native wildlife. Twenty percent of Australia’s mammals, 7 percent of its reptiles, and 13 percent of its birds are listed as extinct, endangered or vulnerable. According to wilderness.org.au, 1,000 plant and animal species are presently at risk of extinction.
The obliteration of the Juukan Gorge caves certainly represents a devastating loss to the PKKP – but it is a tragic loss for the world as well.