The comments of former State Premier Carmen Lawrence about her Government’s approval of Rio Tinto’s Marandoo mine provide significant insight into the power of the big mining companies in WA.
It also highlights the relative impotence of State Government. The former Premier of the State of Western Australian speaks as though there was no alternative but to give in to Rio’s demands.
The primary beneficiary of the Marandoo Act that removed heritage protection for the Marandoo area was Rio Tinto, who Dr Lawrence calls “the big multinational with deep pockets”.
Dr Lawrence acknowledges how aggressively Rio Tinto were behaving at the time and yet the WA State Labor Government meekly acquiesced to their demands.
Heritage professionals working in government were in tears, begging Rio Tinto executives to give them more time to document and evaluate the cultural heritage of extremely significant sites — and they refused.
If ever there was a demonstration of how much power the big mining companies have in Western Australia — this is it.
Rio was calling all the shots. The Lawrence Government could rightly have insisted upon a six or 12-month delay while Marandoo’s priceless heritage was properly documented and evaluated. The economic cost to the State in the big scheme of things, would have been an irrelevance.
Instead, the State (once again, like they did at Juukan) sanctioned the destruction of Australian Indigenous heritage, Australian history. This heritage, this history is not replaceable — it is gone. The Australian people are poorer for it.
For the Eastern Guruma and other Pilbara Traditional Owners it is more pain. An indescribable pain that Elders feel every day as their culture, their Country is being destroyed. Government inaction and greed in major mining provinces like the Pilbara is slowly but surely resulting in cultural genocide.
When you think that Aboriginal people have lived in the Pilbara for well over 40,000 years, their culture is being lost at unprecedented pace. Iron ore mining has only been occurring in the Pilbara for just over 50 years — two generations.
The destruction of culture with each generation is plain to see and each generation is reduced as a result. The cumulative impact is now at tipping point. Large areas of Country destroyed, access restricted, creeks and springs dried up, native animals gone, bush medicine scarce.
There is a clear compact between large miners and State Governments that has been exposed by the examples at Marandoo and Juukan Gorge. There are other examples.
The arrangement is that the government will give the miners their project approvals and the mining companies in return need to control adverse outcomes. These adverse outcomes include Traditional Owner and environmental issues.
The government expects the mining companies to ‘manage’ Traditional Owners through the one-sided and unfair agreements the mining companies have imposed.
It is time that mining companies were held accountable for their poor behaviour. Platitudes and apologies can no longer be accepted.
It is also time for the WA State Government to stand up and protect Aboriginal heritage and culture. Enough is enough.
By Tony Bevan
Tony Bevan is a non-member Director of Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation.