Friday essay: masters of the future or heirs of the past? Mining, history and Indigenous ownership – by Clare Wright (The Conversation – January 2021)

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.

In May 2020, the international mining giant Rio Tinto made a calculated and informed decision to drill 382 blast holes in an area of its Brockman 4 mining lease that encompassed the ancient rock shelter formations at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

In a matter of minutes, eight million tonnes of ore were ripped from the earth, and with them, 46,000 years of cultural heritage destroyed.

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura people, who are the traditional owners of that land, lost their material connection to sacred sites of ceremonial, clan and family life, the basis for their political and social organisation. The Australian people lost a significant chunk of their national estate. For this hefty price we all paid, Rio Tinto lawfully gained access to $135 million dollars of high-grade iron ore.

The Human Rights Law Centre said that the global Corporate Human Rights Benchmark, based in the Netherlands, should strip Rio Tinto of its status as a global human rights leader. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who three years earlier had lovingly cradled a lump of coal in his hands in parliament, said nothing.

In the devastating wake of Juukan, it is timely to ask: can the extractive frontier be just as important as the military frontline in defining the story of our nation?

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