Cultural vandalism in the land of Oz

Criminal intent or just failed governance?

By David Salt

Humans have a rich history of disregarding the culture of others. One tribe moves onto the turf of another tribe and trashes the cultural capital of the first tribe simply because they can; because the culture of the first tribe is an affront to their ideology or their sense of mastery. It’s a signal to everyone that the conquering tribe is the one in charge.

Last week a mining company blew up a cave in Juukan Gorge Western Australia as part of its mining operation. In so doing it destroyed Aboriginal heritage reaching back some 46,000 years.

What does this signal? That economic priorities trump everything else? That First Nation culture is to be respected but only when there is no price to pay? Or that our governance of cultural heritage is a sad joke?

Humans have a rich history of disregarding the culture of others. Around the world there have been many recent episodes of cultural vandalism but this episode in Australia is on many scores far worse.

Blowing up the Buddhas

Many have compared what happened in WA with the Taliban who blew up the massive carved Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 (see David Pope’s cartoon).

It is believed that the monumental Buddha sculptures – one 53m tall, the other 35m – were carved into the cliffs at Bamiyan some 1500 years ago. Before being blown up they were the largest examples of standing Buddha carvings in the world. They were perhaps the most famous cultural landmarks of the region, and the area was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

In 2001, the fanatical government of Afghanistan, the Taliban, declared the statues an affront to Islam. The Taliban’s supreme leader Mullah Omar said that “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols.”

And so it was, despite international condemnation, that the statues were blown to pieces by dynamite.

However, this act of desecration was deliberate, planned and trumpeted to the world. It wasn’t collateral damage in the pursuit of some other goal (such as the expansion of a mine). It was an end unto itself. Like it or not, agree with it or not, it was an act carried out by the government in control of the region.

From Prophet to profit: David Pope’s commentary in The Canberra Times.

Drowning the birthplace of ‘civilisation’

That was 20 years ago. Surely such explicit vandalism of the world’s greatest cultural heritage wouldn’t happen these days?

Have you heard of the ancient city of Hasankeyf? It sits on the banks of the Tigris River in south-eastern Turkey. It may be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the world, spanning some 10,000 years (leaving aside Australian Indigenous culture that goes back some 60,000). It shows examples of Bronze Age kingdoms, Roman influences and was part of the Mongol, Safavid and Ottoman Empires.

Well, if you haven’t seen it you’ve missed your chance. Hasankeyf has just gone under the waters of the newly completed Ilısu Dam. According to Turkey’s leaders, the dam will generate 10,000 jobs, spur agricultural production through irrigation and boost tourism (though many claim the only tourist drawcard in this region is the now drowned city of Hasankeyf).

The dam’s development has been a running sore for the country for many years but Turkey’s strong-arm leadership would not bend to any appeals – internal or external – on sparing the ancient heritage that lay in Hasankeyf. Their claim was the economic development this project would bring outweighed the heritage value of not proceeding.

Some would support such an argument saying a developing country has the right to place its economic development first and foremost. That once the economy has been developed, when it’s people on average enjoy a higher quality of life, then is the time for debates on protection of unique heritage values. It sits with a body of theory referred to as the Kuznetz Curve that suggests that social and environmental concerns are often dealt with once a nation has healthy and robust economy.

So what are we doing in the land of Oz?

None of this should give us comfort when it comes to our brand of cultural vandalism.

The site in Juukan Gorge destroyed by the mining giant Rio Tinto up in the Pilbara was well known for its outstanding heritage values. It’s the only known inland site showing human occupation through the last ice age. The shelters were in use some 46,000 years ago making them approximately twice as old as the famed Lascaux Caves in France.

Rio Tinto says it has apologised to the traditional owners of the site, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.

“Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto,” says Rio Tinto Iron Ore Chief Executive Chris Salisbury. But apparently, it doesn’t matter so much that the mining giant even informed the PKKP they were planning to demolish the caves. The PKKP only found out about the plans when they asked, about a week before the demolition, for access to the shelters for NAIDOC Week in July.

Rio Tinto then went on to suggest that the PKKP had failed to make clear concerns about preserving the site during years of consultation between the two parties, something representatives of the PKKP strongly denied saying Rio was told in October about the significance of the rock shelters (and again as recently as March).

While the demolition was legal under outdated WA heritage protection laws it’s hard to see how such cultural vandalism would have been allowed to proceed if there had been any public airing of what was about to occur.

According to news reports, the federal minister for Indigenous Affairs was informed about the imminent destruction of the caves in the days before it occurred but did nothing about it.

The WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs claims he didn’t even know the demolition was happening.

And the perpetrators themselves are making few comments (though they released an apology several days after the destruction – possibly realising that in so overreaching acceptable behaviour that their social licence to operate was in question).

Things will change?

Clearly, something has gone horribly wrong here. At the very least there has been a terrible lapse in national and state governance, and an appalling lapse in corporate social responsibility. Everyone has expressed regret over what happened, but no-one has accepted responsibility.

Things will change our political leaders are belatedly telling us. WA hopes to pass its new improved Aboriginal cultural heritage bill later this year; the existing law that permitted this destruction is almost 50 years old and crafted in a different age when it comes to respecting Aboriginal culture.

Federal Indigenous Affairs minister Ken Wyatt has now called for Indigenous cultural protection to be addressed in the current review of the EPBC Act. It’s interesting that the discussion paper put out for the EPBC review seems to put a lot of emphasis on Indigenous issues. It’s ironic that this desecration by Rio Tinto should occur while this review is in train.

The caves at Juukan Gorge contained inestimable anthropological and cultural value, as did Hasankeyf and the Bamiyan Bhuddas. Unlike Hasankeyf and the Bhuddas, the caves lay in a stable, democratic and developed nation that tells the world it respects and protects Indigenous culture.

What happened last week at Juukan Gorge shines a light on the truth of this claim. It can never be allowed to happen again.

Image: Rio Tinto prepares explosives that will destroy a 46,000 year old Aboriginal shelter in Juukan Gorge. (PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.)

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