BHP has promised to not disturb ancient Aboriginal sites in Western Australia for a mine expansion without consulting traditional owners, following outrage over Rio Tinto legally blowing up 46,000-year-old rock shelters in the same region.
BHP applied in October to work in an area containing 40 significant indigenous sites to enlarge the $4.5 billion South Flank iron ore project, which Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt approved last month.
That came five days after Rio Tinto destroyed two rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge area, distressing the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, who said they had mentioned the significance of the sites “for years”.
One of the sites BHP applied to develop is in the Djadjiling Range, which is also in the Pilbara and contains rock shelters and has been occupied for a similar amount of time.
The Banjima native title holders said on Thursday they had only just found out about Mr Wyatt’s approval and needed to consider the detail.
“The Banjima people do not support the destruction of sites of cultural significance,” Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation chairman Maitland Parker said.
“We stand with all Aboriginal traditional owners and particularly our Pilbara brothers and sisters, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura at this time, in our abhorrence at the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters.”
Mr Wyatt says the Banjima people did not file objections to various Section 18 notices lodged by BHP which, under the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, seek the minister’s consent to develop a site where impact from development is considered unavoidable.
Mr Wyatt says BHP foreshadowed lodging the notices in a 2015 agreement with the Banjima people, who identified a site that was significant in the most recent application but did not object.
He wants impacts to Aboriginal sites “limited to the practical extent possible” but believes in indigenous self-determination and supports native title groups using their hard-won rights to make commercial deals.
“I am cautious about governments interfering in private negotiations by registered native title holders.
“I have asked BHP to work with Banjima to do what it can to avoid or minimise the impact on this site, regardless of the Section 18 approval.”
Greens WA Aboriginal affairs spokesman Robin Chapple said it was ludicrous Mr Wyatt had asked BHP “not to destroy that site that he had just given them permission to destroy”.
A BHP spokeswoman said the company had consulted extensively with the Banjima people over 15 years and would continue to do so.
“We take a sustainable approach to our mining operations and work in partnership with traditional owners to ensure that each stage of development is informed by their views,” she said.
“We will not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation with the Banjima people.
“This will include further scientific study and discussion on mitigation and preservation.”
The WA government hopes to pass its new Aboriginal cultural heritage bill this year, which will provide for agreements between traditional owners and companies to consider new information and be amended by mutual consent.
It will also provide appeal options.