Trashing the Pilbara

In April 2017 BHP proudly announced to the world a record-breaking blast at one of its Pilbara mines, involving more than 6400 detonators over 50 hectares of ground and dislodging 11 million tonnes of iron ore.

In early 2020 we learned BHP had broken another record: the world’s largest controlled blast at a Bowen Basin (Queensland) coalmine, using 8144 detonators setting off 2194 tonnes of explosive. Another BHP Bowen Basin mine had held the previous record. 

Then, a few months later, the world learned about Juukan Gorge, and we stopped hearing about record-breaking mine blasts.

Juukan Gorge in the western Pilbara, a known Aboriginal cultural site featuring cave art about 46,000 years old, happened to lie within Brockman 4, a Rio Tinto mining lease. On 24 May 2020 the caves disappeared, blasted into shovel-ready rock. 

It was a colossal blunder. When the news got out, Rio Tinto’s management was excoriated for its lack of judgement and CEO Jean Sebastian Jacques was forced to resign. The 315-page report of a federal parliamentary inquiry condemning the company, chaired by a ropable Warren Entsch MP, was tabled in parliament last October.

In the wake of the Rio event, BHP pledged not to disturb heritage sites around its operations without first consulting with traditional owners. But in late January 2021 another Aboriginal heritage site collapsed at a BHP operation called Area C, 200 km east of Juukan Gorge.

Now, thanks to The Australian’s resources writer Nick Evans, we know quite a bit more about that event. Early this month he wrote that a BHP report on the collapse had been delivered last August to the site’s traditional owners, the Banjima people.

Evans reports that BHP’s investigation had found the likeliest cause of the shelter’s collapse was “historic blasting around the site, which weakened the rock structures above the shelter, making them more vulnerable to blasting elsewhere.”

BHP kept this from the public and gave no information about how restitution would be made, saying that the Banjima people wanted the report kept confidential. That must have been a great relief to the company, especially as it had earlier let it be known that unlike Rio it did not apply gag clauses to agreements with traditional owners.

Evans quoted a BHP spokesman saying that the company had “a strong ongoing relationship… based on respect for Banjima people, their heritage and connection to country.” It is unclear, said Evans, whether that holds for all the group’s elders.

If the findings of the Entsch committee are anything to go by, the Juukan Gorge and Area C incidents are mere outcrops on a mountain of events that have seen hundreds of culturally significant sites disappear as a result of Pilbara mine operations.

One of many examples cited by the committee was that of the Guruma people around Mount Tom Price, where principal players are Rio Tinto and Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals. A recent review found that “at least 434 heritage sites have been destroyed through mining activity, and a further 285 are in very close proximity to current mining operation areas”.

Within two generations, according to the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, “Eastern Guruma people have seen their country change from a remote place teeming with wildlife, fresh water and unbroken sacred narratives that networked through the Pilbara, to a heavily industrialised mining hub, now dissected by railways, dry and devoid of animals.”

As the Entsch report makes clear, all this arose out of a grossly unequal power relationship between traditional owners and giant mining companies. Standing up against the companies is made all but impossible by confidentiality clauses, tempting financial inducements and a complete absence of government support for legal action.

There was a time when mining for iron and coal involved going underground. Now, with earth-shaking blasts and giant machines, we simply remove everything above the minerals – every hill, every gully, every cave. Much as we harvest wood, not one tree at a time but by obliterating the whole forest.

First Nations people of the Pilbara are seeing their homeland’s landscapes flattened and its ancient cultural sites destroyed for the sake of a lucrative but transitory mineral market. A tiny proportion of those returns reaches them, but the vast bulk goes to the mining companies and to state and federal governments. 

Here’s another thing: the Pilbara lies in the hottest corner of Australia. Global warming over the next century – to which mining contributes significantly – will almost certainly make it uninhabitable. It’s not enough that our greed is destroying Pilbara’s unique and ancient cultural heritage; it will also force its people off their land.

“Obscene” is not too strong a word for what is at work here.

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