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The history of Indigenous Australia is not written in books but it is engraved on the rocks in the landscape; that is why Indigenous heritage is obliterated in Australia

The history of Indigenous Australia is not written in books but it is engraved on the rocks in the landscape; that is why Indigenous heritage is obliterated in Australia

Instead of considering mining companies like Rio Tinto as vandals, maybe we should start looking hard at our heritage legislation

A scene from Kalmina Gorge in Karijini National Park, WA, close to the site of the destruction in Juukan Gorge. (Photo credit: Gypsy Denise,, Creative Commons 4.0 licence.

The destruction of cultural heritage usually responds to several motivations. The destruction of Indigenous heritage in Australia, however, responds to a set of particular motivations. Recent reports published in Australian newspapers have detailed the destruction of an Indigenous sacred site in the Pilbara district, in Western Australia (WA), by one of the biggest mining companies in the world, Rio Tinto. The outcry on social media condemning the company was quick to materialize. Juukan Gorge lies 60km north-west of Tom Price and is located on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, who are the Traditional Owners of the land where the two rock-shelters that Rio Tinto blasted sit. They were granted native title over the area in 2015. Notwithstanding the immense social value of the site to the PKKP, the site was also valuable in terms of its scientific heritage. Back in 2014, a group of archaeologists found evidence of human occupation dating back 46,000 years. The team also found one of the earliest uses of grindstone technology in the Pilbara, and a macropod fibula, sharpened into a pointed tool, believed to date back approximately 28,000 years.

The blast of these two rock-shelters is enough to make people angry, and while I completely understand this anger—I am the author of a book on the destruction of the largest archaeological site in the world—I was also surprised to see so many comments on Twitter comparing the destruction in the Pilbara to the very icon of iconoclasm, as well as a cartoon published in the Canberra Times. While many on social media were quick to compare the destruction of Juukan Gorge to the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban regime in 2001, others linked it to the destruction of Palmyra and Mosul museum by the so-called Islamic State (IS).

While I agree that these cases (in fact, all destruction) share some similarities, comparing the destruction of Indigenous heritage in WA to the destruction in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq is not only unhelpful but it is also misguided, and overlooks some very important points that explain the destruction in WA better.

To start with, comparing the destruction of Indigenous heritage in WA to the destruction in Bamiyan is hypocritical because using destruction perpetrated by an extreme fundamentalist or terrorist organization says more about us as cultural critics rather than thinking the destruction through and using the opportunity to reflect on the state of Indigenous heritage and culture in Australia. When we claim that a company like Rio Tinto is acting like the Taliban we are overlooking an important fact. The Taliban were deemed barbarians and vandals because they could not adopt heritage values derived from Western civilization—monumental heritage must be protected, not destroyed, because it is part of our identity and we must pass it on to younger generations. As many colleagues have demonstrated, the Taliban destroyed the statues as an act of iconoclasm, but underlying the notion that they were against the representation of human figures, there was also a rejection of the notion of heritage, as it is applied in the West. Therefore, comparing Rio Tinto to a group of extreme fanatics is naïve, not to mention highly hypocritical.

Using the examples of IS and the Taliban is perhaps not the best approach. Commentators using these examples emphasize the belief that only a group of extreme religious fanatics could not understand the value of heritage and henceforth, they destroy it. As art historians David Freedberg and Dario Gamboni have demonstrated, it is actually the opposite. Iconoclasts, as opposed to iconophiles, are fervently convinced of the power of images, objects and sites because they recognize this power and know that only by destroying images, objects and sites, the power disappears. Iconoclasts know that if they want to erase the history of the Other, they have to deliberately target the heritage of the Other.

Certainly, Rio Tinto can be blamed of vandalism but it is a legal vandalism. How is this then different from the destruction of the Buddhas? To start with, to the eyes of the WA government, Rio Tinto is not an outside group that has destroyed a heritage site, following an iconoclastic campaign, such as the one perpetrated by the IS in Iraq and Syria a few years ago. Likewise, Rio Tinto is not a terrorist organization, like the Taliban and the IS, unrecognized by the United Nations. On the contrary, to many in the public domain, it is a respected multinational corporation that symbolizes progress and development. It employs thousands of people around the world and it has created one of the most effective heritage management programs by a corporation in the world. Nonetheless, its operations do have an impact and it leaves many communities devastated around the world.

WA is no exception. Rio Tinto employs a mechanism that has been implemented in the past with success: destruction from above is tolerated because it is legal (Carlos Eire, expert on iconoclasm, calls it “iconoclasm from above”). A destruction is legal if it is perpetrated within the legal framework that allows mining companies to sign agreements with Aboriginal corporations and undertake surveying work as proposed in the Aboriginal Heritage Act (AHA) WA. The AHA has been controversial since its creation in 1972 and despite being amended several times, many experts have indicated its uselessness when it comes to the protection of Indigenous heritage in WA. Many others have pointed out the outdated and irregular concepts of heritage that the AHA uses to define what is Aboriginal heritage. The AHA is currently under review and a discussion paper has been drafted to signal all those irregularities that need to be changed if we want to prevent further destruction like Juukan Gorge.

While one could claim that the destruction in Bamiyan responded to the notion of iconoclasm from above—although the Taliban were not recognized as a proper government by the UN, they were effectively governing Afghanistan—in the West, however, the destruction was seen as an unlawful act of heritage destruction and a crime against humanity. This is why I pointed out earlier that this stand is highly naive and hypocritical. The outcry on social media condemning the destruction that occurred in WA was influenced by similar discourses that situate heritage as the target of vandals who do not understand (or neglect) the cultural value of Indigenous heritage. However, the destruction in Juukan Gorge was, unfortunately, legal because Rio Tinto was complying with its legal obligations.

In 2013, Rio Tinto was given the green light to go ahead with the operation that was approved by then Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, Peter Collier. According to current legislation, the decisions to allow companies to destroy Indigenous sites rests on the minister in turn. This is just one example of the strength of the colonial mindset that leads WA heritage legislation.

Therefore, WA is a paradise of flexibility in which different extractive industries can operate without being punished and even be encouraged to destroy ancient sites.

And we all know the reason this occurs. WA is one of the largest producers of iron ore and other minerals in the world, and its booming economy is a pillar of Australian economic profits. Knowing all this, it may be a surprise to many to learn that Rio Tinto has developed some of the most accessible and useful programs for heritage management. They have had success, as well as failures, in managing sacred sites for local communities in Mongolia, Canada, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Serbia, among others.

This string of successes, of course, does not change the fact that Rio Tinto has also impacted and destroyed many heritage sites in its long history of extracting mineral commodities around the world. In fact, in many cases the damage is irreversible, like at Juukan Gorge—the damage to the scientific value of the site as one of the oldest sites in Australia should make one’s blood boil.

So rather than looking outside and using other examples to condemn the destruction in Australia, I suggest we should look inwards and concede that heritage legislation in WA is not only deficient but also ineffective, as many have pointed out in relation to the AHA. Heritage destruction can only be studied in its own context, and while some comparisons are certainly effective (the IS studied carefully the destruction of Bamiyan to perpetrate their own iconoclasm in Syria and Iraq), in the case of WA we must take a hard look at ourselves and ask why is legislation based on colonial conceptions of Indigenous heritage still present in the country, disregarding the perceptions and opinions of the true owners of the land? This is where we will find the real reasons that Indigenous heritage is still destroyed in Australia without any repercussions, neglecting the true interests of the Traditional Owners.

The history of Indigenous people in Australia is written on the engraved rocks that are embedded in the living landscapes. Australian Indigenous people sustain a deep connection between them and the landscape. They have to take care of the landscape so in turn the landscape takes care of them. Many years ago, when the earth was soft, the ancient spirits taught Indigenous people how to take care of the earth and at many sacred sites, they left their guidelines. These sites are also very powerful sites because they sit on top of large deposits of iron ore and other mineral commodities. As I pointed out before, only by targeting what is most sacred to us, the iconoclasts will be able to erase history.

While the destruction in Bamiyan, Palmyra and Mosul were isolated cases of heritage destruction, in Australia the destruction of Indigenous heritage and culture occurs almost every day. Every time Indigenous culture is the object of racism, destruction and neglect, Indigenous people are being denied their culture and their heritage in an effort to erase their past.

Indigenous heritage is also destroyed in Australia because the system allows it; a system that is not broken, it was built this way, and companies like Rio Tinto are simply using it to their own advantage. That is the case because Indigenous heritage is valued at the level of discourse (in static environments: the museum, the gallery) but not on the ground, where it is not protected and, in many cases, destroyed.

Indigenous heritage is still assessed using outdated conceptions of heritage and therefore is deemed meaningless when it is compared to Western heritage. This complete neglect has put in motion a disregard for Indigenous heritage in Australia.

Colonial conceptions of Indigenous culture—primitive, childish, static—have permeated legal and heritage discourses that find their way into documents like the AHA. If we get angry at Rio Tinto for blowing up a 46,000-year-old site then we must also get angry at the fact that Indigenous people live in some of the most miserable conditions in the world. It is not enough to complain about mining companies destroying the Australian landscape if employees around the country do not employ Indigenous people due to cultural insensitivities. In Australia it is quite easy to complain about the destruction of Indigenous heritage while denying Indigenous people to integrate in our progressive cities and economic systems. It is also easy because we think landscapes are there for us to admire aesthetically (using the same outdated concept of heritage that the AHA is based on), without recognizing that Indigenous landscapes are living organisms where ceremonies, rituals, cultural practice and passing of knowledge is shared within the community. It is also highly hypocritical to not recognize landscapes in such a way because when they are disturbed by mining companies, we compare the action to the destruction perpetrated by the Taliban.

Therefore, the next time another rock shelter is blasted, a sacred tree is removed, rock art engravings destroyed or an Indigenous language disappears, I suggest we take a hard and critical look at the legislation in Australia that it is here to protect Indigenous heritage and prevent future destruction, instead of using the equivocal example of Muslim fanatics destroying symbols of cultures that originally inhabited that part of the world.


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