Resource extraction has sometimes had disastrous outcomes for the cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians. What can engineers in the mining sector do to best work with traditional owners?
It stood for 46,000 years in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, the only inland site with evidence of continuous human occupation since the most recent Ice Age.
Then, on 24 May 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto blasted eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore from Juukan Gorge, destroying the sacred Indigenous heritage rock shelter.
Although the detonation was legal under laws of the time, it caused immeasurable cultural loss and grief for the gorge’s traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) peoples.
And it sparked public outcry, a joint federal parliamentary committee investigation and serious questions about how companies can best work with Indigenous communities to protect culturally significant sites during mining operations.
These are important questions for engineers, whose skills are in high demand across Australia’s mining industry.
What do you need to consider when mining in culturally significant sites? How can you navigate the challenges to ensure the protection of Indigenous heritage? And what are engineers’ ethical obligations?
Striking a balance
Australia’s $470 billion mining industry has long been a cornerstone of the economy: it operates 350 mines and employs about 264,700 people.
While the value to Australia is clear, its cost to cultural heritage is now being closely re-examined after the tragedy at Juukan Gorge.
The final report into the gorge’s destruction, by the Senate’s Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, found that Rio Tinto’s actions demonstrated “the profound lack of care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage in this country“.
It also highlighted serious deficiencies across Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage legislative framework, and noted that the tragedy might be a catalyst for change.
The committee found that Rio Tinto’s “poor communication with the PKKP” was a key element in the chain of events that led to the destruction of the Juukan caves. But it also noted that legislation designed to protect cultural heritage has, in many cases, directly contributed to damage and destruction.
The federal government has accepted the committee’s recommendations to legislate new cultural heritage protections and to review the Native Title Act.
A spokesperson for Federal Resources Minister Madeleine King told create that legislative change must strike the right balance and that “protecting the environment and supporting industry is not mutually exclusive. The resources industry is of vital importance to our economy — it creates jobs and export earnings, funds schools [and] hospitals and is responsible for the high standard of living all of us enjoy.
“At the same time, the government is strongly committed to working with traditional owners and custodians to properly protect the history of the oldest living civilisation in the world. This includes developing new national standalone legislation to protect First Nations’ cultural heritage.”
Mining for change
While the details of the new legislation remain to be seen, many mining companies are taking a proactive approach to reviewing and improving their cultural heritage practices.
“The key to protecting Country and culture is for companies and traditional owners to have relationships built on mutual respect and trust,” says Burchell Hayes, Chair of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.
A spokesperson for oil and gas giant Woodside says the Juukan Gorge incident prompted the company to review the risks associated with its own current and future activities, “to ensure that our management is thorough, transparent and underpinned by close engagement with Indigenous stakeholders and communities”.
Woodside, which has operated for more than 35 years in Murujuga — formerly known as Dampier Island — in Western Australia’s Burrup Peninsula, acknowledges that its cultural heritage impacts were managed differently in the past, and that those practices no longer meet community expectations or the standards the company sets itself.
During the design and construction of Woodside’s Karratha Gas Plant (KGP) in the 1980s, for instance, traditional owners were excluded from heritage processes.
“Instead, the Western Australian government, through the WA Museum, managed the heritage assessment and site clearances on behalf of the North West Shelf Project,” explains Woodside’s spokesperson, adding that 1832 Indigenous Australian petroglyphs were relocated from the KGP site to a compound at Hearsons Cove.
“Our approach matured with the design and construction of Pluto LNG in the mid-2000s. The traditional custodians were central to the heritage management process. They participated in comprehensive cultural heritage surveys and helped Woodside to develop our cultural heritage management plans.
“Most importantly, their engagement — and the cultural heritage survey outcomes — prompted an engineering redesign of the initial Pluto liquefied natural gas plant to both avoid and protect the most significant heritage sites, including 92 per cent of the recorded rock art.
“The rock art and other artefacts that could not be avoided were safely relocated to a nearby natural setting with the guidance of traditional custodians.”
However, controversy surrounding Woodside’s operations remains; recent protests over its Scarborough natural gas project show the ongoing challenge of balancing mining operations with cultural heritage protection.
A group of traditional owners of Murujaga travelled to Geneva in July 2022 to address an expert panel of the United Nations Human Rights Council in an effort to prevent gas industry expansion bordering World Heritage-nominated rock art.
However, Woodside says it has undertaken extensive archaeological and ethnographic surveys together with traditional owners, and that these surveys “have confirmed that the Scarborough project will not impact any onshore areas outside our current industrial footprint and will not impact any rock art”.
The engineer’s role
Dr Anne Hellstedt, Technical Excellence Leader — Australia and Asia Pacific, Australia, at global engineering management consultancy Mott MacDonald is Chair of Engineers Australia’s National College of Leadership and Management Board.
She says engineers have both an ethical and professional responsibility to show respect for culturally significant sites.
“This includes working together with traditional owners when making decisions, and also playing a role in influencing the mechanisms for this to happen,” she says.
She cautions that engineers must not allow this to become a “check-the-box” exercise to merely provide evidence of engagement with traditional owners.
“It’s about having meaningful dialogue to reach decisions through consultation and collaboration,” she says.
At companies like Woodside, all employees working on site participate in a cultural heritage induction, and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation provides additional cultural awareness training for Woodside staff on their traditional lands.
“Engineers need to listen and learn from Indigenous Australia so they can really understand the significance of these extraordinary places,” says Hellstedt.
“There’s also a lot they can learn from Indigenous engineering.”
Woodside’s spokesperson says the biggest engineering challenge in mining operations is ensuring there’s enough flexibility in its design to accommodate cultural heritage requirements as they are identified.
“The appropriate management of Indigenous heritage sites varies from place to place, and site to site. For instance, in one case, the best practice — informed by traditional custodians — may be to fence off an area to prevent accidental entry, while in another, it will be essential that access is maintained for traditional custodians.”
Often, the best approach is “early consultation with traditional custodians, and a sound understanding of the cultural values”, he adds.
Hellstedt notes that the clean-up and remediation of legacy mines is also a challenge and a significant issue for Indigenous Australians.
“There are challenges at both ends of a mine’s life cycle,” she says.
“Again, the way to address these challenges is for engineers to work with the traditional owners, to communicate effectively and to not make assumptions.”
In the years since the destruction of the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, Rio Tinto CEO Jakob Stausholm says the company has been “changing the way we work in every part of our business”.
One of the most significant changes is the signing of an agreement with the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation in May 2022, which sets out how it will work in partnership on a co-management approach to mining activities on PKKP country.
Burchell Hayes, Chair of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, says the Juukan Gorge traditional owners support the new mining model, and stresses that co-management is not “an afterthought, or regulatory tick-the-box”.
“It will apply to every aspect of a mine life cycle, from the planning to the closure and rehabilitation,” he says.
“It requires mutual obligation and shared responsibility; the miner and the PKKP people must be committed to the best outcomes for it to work successfully.”
Hayes adds that a co-management model makes clear “how we both communicate and resolve differences.”
“It gives our people a greater role to work on the ground, monitoring and engaging with the mining people,” he says.
“And it sets out what we, as traditional owners, want to achieve from what happens on our country: protection of culture and environment, and economic and social opportunity.”
Hayes says that the corporation and its members decided to rewrite and rebuild the relationship with Rio Tinto in the aftermath of what happened at Juukan Gorge
“A major step forward in that relationship is an agreement for co-management of mining,” he says.
“The principle of co-management is simple: we work with the mining company to protect culture, and it gives us an equal say in what happens on our country.”