MELBOURNE, Australia — A giant mining company on Thursday said it would go ahead with destroying at least 40 ancient Indigenous sites in the Pilbara desert in Western Australia, just days after a national outcry over revelations that other archaeological sites in the region had been razed.
The company, BHP, received approval to destroy the sites in May after it applied to expand an iron ore mine, worth $3.2 billion, on land that contains rock shelters some 15,000 years old.
But in a moment of global upheaval around race and inequality, BHP’s plan has stoked outrage and criticism in Australia. The issue has also intensified a decades-long debate about the mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, highlighting concerns that traditional heritage is often subjugated to the country’s largest and most important industry: mining.
BHP was careful on Thursday to say that it would not destroy the heritage sites without “further extensive consultation” with traditional owners, but a spokesman made clear in an interview that it had no plans to cancel the demolitions.
Securing access to the land requires “the disavowal” of the rights of Indigenous people, said Prof. Kristen Lyons, a sociologist at the University of Queensland whose research focuses on mining and Indigenous rights. The traditional owners disavowed some rights in a 2015 agreement, but the law favors the companies over the people when there is a dispute.
“This is modus operandi in Australia,” Professor Lyons said, describing a stark contradiction between the country’s out-of-date reliance on mineral extraction and the current surge in global awareness of structural racism.
While approvals for contentious mining sites that destroy places of cultural and archaeological significance are not uncommon in Australia, the most recent developments have incensed many citizens, leading some to stage protests in the hope that this might prove to be a moment of reckoning.
In late May, it was revealed that another large mining company, Rio Tinto, had blasted two sacred Indigenous sites, dating to 46,000 years ago, in the Pilbara. Days later it was learned that Ben Wyatt, Western Australia’s minister for Indigenous Australians, had approved the BHP demolitions.
“That’s where our ancestors occupied that country,” Burchell Hayes, a director of PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, told a local news outlet in the Pilbara region, after shelters at the Juukan Gorge were destroyed by Rio Tinto. PKKP Aboriginal Corporation administers the traditional lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples in the Pilbara. Mr. Hayes works as an adviser for BHP.
“It’s really, really hard to swallow that, that it’s no longer there,” Mr. Hayes added, referring to the shelters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia has adopted an increasingly conservative stance on issues surrounding race and has sought to decouple Indigenous rights from the broader Black Lives Matter movement that is spreading in the United States and in other countries.
“Australia was not based on the slave trade,” he said in a recent radio interview, adding that he did not believe that the country had a problem with systemic racism.
There are some signs, however, that the outcry over the destruction of the sites, which are not only significant for Indigenous people but are also of scientific and historical importance, has had an impact.
On Sunday, the chief executive of Rio Tinto, Chris Salisbury, apologized for the distress the company had caused to the traditional Indigenous owners of the caves the company had destroyed. “Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto, having worked together for many years,” he added, referring to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.
Late on Thursday in Melbourne, BHP released a statement clarifying that it had no plans to destroy the sites without further consultation with the traditional owners of the land, the Banjima people. “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,” the statement read.
While Banjima representatives said they needed time to consider the details of the mining company’s plans, they denounced the recent destruction of other sites in the Pilbara.
“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, and those suffering the threat of or having recently experienced similar site destruction,” the group said in a statement on Thursday.
Despite new attention on the destruction of Indigenous sites, legal experts said there was still a long way to go to ensure sacred sites and their owners were shielded from exploitation.
“The legal framework is extremely weak,” said Samantha Hepburn, director of the Center for Energy and Natural Resources Law, at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia.
Though overhauls to the way the agreements are made are being considered by the Western Australia state government, Prof. Hepburn said that asking traditional landowners to exchange places of cultural and historical significance for financial incentive was wrong in the first place.
“Indigenous heritage is being destroyed at a rapid rate and it can’t be replaced, it’s irretrievable,” she said.
“It’s terribly sad,” she added, “that we don’t have a mandate that our heritage is appropriately protected against short term economic interests.”