Juukan Gorge rehabilitation work underway three years after Rio Tinto blast: ABC

ABC Pilbara/By Amelia Searson

Three years since sacred rock shelters at Juukan Gorge were destroyed, works have started to rehabilitate the land — but the pain still runs deep for the traditional owners.

Key points:

  • The Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation says it is working with Rio Tinto to remediate the land
  • The traditional owners are also working to recover cultural material from the site
  • The federal government says the process for reforming national heritage laws is underway

Rio Tinto was searching for iron ore in May 2020 when it blasted two rock shelters, despite traditional owners warning the mining giant of the site’s significance.

It was a “distressing” act that sparked outrage across the globe and triggered a parliamentary inquiry into the disaster that recommended greater heritage protections in Australia.

On the third anniversary, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people want to mark their devastating loss, but also highlight the positive work traditional owners are doing to try and “make amends” for what happened.

“The destruction of our most significant cultural heritage site should not have happened,” PKKP Land Committee chairperson Burchell Hayes said.

“To ensure that we will never experience this senseless feeling of loss and devastation in the future, we are driven towards achieving a co-management process of country with mining companies.”

PKKP traditional owner Burchell Hayes says work is being done to rehabilitate the land.

Projects for healing

The PKKP Aboriginal Corporation has established a committee to communicate with Rio Tinto about the desired rehabilitation of Juukan Gorge.

Mr Hayes said remediation works had started to take place in the form of seeding and replanting native vegetation.

The PKKP elder said his community was pleased with the work being done under the committee’s guidance, but nothing would make up for the destruction at Juukan Gorge.

A shrubby hillside in the outback.

The PKKP people’s traditional lands and waters cover almost 11,000 square kilometres between Onslow and Tom Price.

He said the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation recognised Rio Tinto’s efforts to rebuild the relationship, but expectations had not changed.

“We have always said that we are not opposed to mining, but it needs to be done in the right way, involving traditional owners and, first of all, gaining our free, prior and informed consent,” Mr Hayes said.

“As traditional owners, the PKKP people can coexist with companies that wish to impact our traditional country, but the best path forward for these mining companies is stepping up to the co-management agreement.”

The corporation is also working to recover the remaining archaeological deposits and cultural material at the rock shelters.

PKKP traditional owner Terry Hayes, who is overseeing the project, says it is vital to preserve cultural material for future generations to help them deal with the loss.

“It is important they have something here that they can have to themselves and so we can move past the anger with Rio Tinto,” he said.

“We want an area that’s our own that we can pass onto our younger people so they can think their elders did enough to fix it.”

A group of protesters hold up signs saying "Always was, always will be Aboriginal land".

The destruction of the two rock shelters sparked outrage around the globe.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Simon Trott said the company had made “many changes” to regain the trust that was broken from the Juukan tragedy.

“We’re working more closely with traditional owners to better protect heritage by moving beyond a transactional approach to deliver better outcomes on the ground and developing real partnerships which are based on respect,” he said.

Mr Trott said Rio Tinto was moving towards a model of co-management to ensure Indigenous voices were always heard.

He reiterated the remedy agreement signed with the PKKP people in November 2022 and the establishment of the Juukan Gorge Legacy Foundation, which was aimed to deliver benefits to future generations of traditional owners.

“We know there is still much work to do as we continue to build trust with traditional owners and the community,” Mr Trott said.

Five people sitting at a long table, wearing a brown uniform, with lots of notes and papers on the table, in a conference room.

PKKP Aboriginal Corporation members giving evidence at the parliamentary inquiry in 2020.

Push for national reform

Following the parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of the 46,000-year-old caves, the federal government committed to new Indigenous heritage protection laws.

“What was lost at Juukan Gorge can never be replaced,” Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said.

“We must fix our broken heritage laws.”

She said the government was working on the legislation with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance.

Ms Plibersek told the ABC the process was underway and that it was important to balance urgent action with the need for comprehensive reform.

“I expect the alliance, along with my department, to provide options to progress reform within coming months,” she said.

A woman with shoulder-length blonde hair, wearing a dark blouse with a floral design, stands outside looking sombre.

Hannah McGlade says the destruction of sacred sites is a “fundamental attack” on Indigenous people.

Human rights lawyer and Noongar woman Hannah McGlade said the new laws needed to provide a clear “safety net” for Aboriginal people across the country.

“We haven’t seen the federal act provide that level of protection to date and that’s something that really is obviously urgently needed — we saw what happened with the Juukan Gorge disaster,” she said.

Dr McGlade said the reforms had to protect traditional owners’ right to “free, prior and informed consent” and their right to reject developments on culturally significant land.

“This system of destroying Aboriginal sacred lands really is a fundamental attack on the people and the culture and it can’t be permitted any longer,” she said.

“We need to be developing a better standard in that regard — a standard that increases the involvement of Aboriginal people in this important area of law.”