News BHP halts destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites amid outcry over Rio Tinto blasting

BHP halts destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites amid outcry over Rio Tinto blasting

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge heritage site drew international outcry against iron ore miner Rio Tinto. Photo: ABC News
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Mining giant BHP has announced it will place on hold plans to destroy dozens of sacred sites in WA as part of a major mine operation, following a national backlash over Rio Tinto’s blasting of sacred sites in Western Australia’s Pilbara.

BHP had planned to destroy up to 40 sites sacred to the Banjima people to make way for its $4.5 billion South Flank mine, near Newman in WA’s Pilbara.

The company was granted approval to do so by WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt on May 29, just days after Rio Tinto’s destruction of ancient rock shelters became public.

Juukan Gorge in 2013, left, and 2020. Photo: Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation/ABC News

But BHP on Thursday released a statement from a spokeswoman saying it was putting its plans on ice.

“We will not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation with the Banjima people,” the statement said.

“That consultation will be based on our commitment to understanding the cultural significance of the region and on the deep respect we have for the Banjima people and their heritage.

“This will include further scientific study and discussion on mitigation and preservation.”

The company noted it submitted what is known as a Section 18 application to destroy the sites in October following “extensive” consultation with the Banjima people over 15 years.

BHP’s announcement marks a major development in what has become a loud protest movement against the destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites since the Rio blast.

The WA government has described Section 18 of its Aboriginal Heritage Act as outdated and has been reviewing the legislation for some time.

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In a statement released before BHP’s announcement, Mr Wyatt said no objections were filed to the Section 18 application from BHP he approved on May 29.

“The area covered by this notice was the subject of a Comprehensive Agreement signed by BHP and the Banjima people in 2015,” he said.

“BHP agreed financial and other benefits for the Banjima people, while the Banjima made commitments to support the South Flank project.”

The South Flank mine is a major project for BHP in WA’s Pilbara. Photo: AAP/BHP

“In June 2018 BHP made a final investment decision on the $4.5 billion South Flank project, which created 2500 construction jobs and 600 ongoing operational roles.

“As Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, I want to see impacts to Aboriginal sites limited to the practical extent possible.

“I am also a great believer in self-determination for Aboriginal people and support native title groups using their hard-won rights to make commercial agreements with land users.

“I am cautious about governments interfering in private negotiations by registered native title holders.”