Around 50,000 years ago, our world was almost impossibly different. Mastodons and woolly mammoths roamed from Siberia to France, and sloths the size of elephants stalked the plains of Argentina. People were unfamiliar too. Modern humans competed with Neandertals – with their pug noses and unwieldy gait – as they hunted and gathered for survival against the odds. Even the landscapes in that distant past would feel bewildering today. Much of North America was under an ice sheet two miles thick – but the Sahara was a fertile savannah filled with lions and hippos.

Yet if the planet back then was so different, one corner of Western Australia (WA) may have seemed familiar. Burrowed under the region’s red sands and scrublands, people have occupied the caves of Juukan Gorge continuously for millennia – as suggested by fauna, grindstones and a kangaroo bone shaped into a primitive hunting tool. Other evidence for Juukan’s deep heritage is more compelling still. A length of plaited human hair found at the site, 4,000 years old and woven from the heads of different individuals, shares much with the DNA of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people who still live in WA today. All told, this is a place that may have first welcomed human footprints 46,000 years ago.

Now though, the wonders of Juukan Gorge have gone the way of the Neandertal. In May 2020, this sacred site was blasted by miners from Rio Tinto, as they expanded the Brockman 4 iron mine, cutting one of our last cords to the world of the mastodon. Predictably, the backlash was swift. Rio Tinto’s CEO resigned, new legislation was announced and local Aboriginals mourned their loss. The truth, though, is that the Juukan Gorge disaster was just the latest example in a vast tome of devastation, one stretching back hundreds of years. And though operators have made the right noises in the aftermath of the vandalism, questions remain as to whether Australia’s miners can truly mend their ways.

Down and under

Mining has been important to Australia for as long as Australians have existed. Aboriginal clans dug stones for tools, and ochre to make paint. In more recent times, however, the industry has taken on a darker tinge. The country’s first gold rush in the 1850s saw white settlers swarm the riches of New South Wales and Victoria. And when they arrived, Aboriginal groups often suffered. On the eve of the gold rush, for instance, the area around modern Ballarat was home to over 3,000 Wathaurung people. A decade later, that number had slumped to just a few hundred. Similar incidents have continued into modern times. As late as the 1960s, says James Fitzgerald, a lawyer at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, indigenous Australians were expelled from their lands to make way for mines, with politicians sometimes giving operators carte blanche over vast tracts of territory.

In part, this history can be understood legally. Since European settlement began in the 18th century, tradition held that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ – uninhabited and unclaimed wilderness. And though that particular norm was struck down in 1992 – doubtless to the relief of ancient peoples like the PKKP – the situation remains grim. Typical is the Aboriginal Heritage Act (AHA), passed by WA legislators in 1972. In force during the destruction at Juukan Gorge, it is nominally there to protect indigenous rights. In practice, however, the law has frequently been exploited by mining concerns, often in collaboration with politicians. In 2009, for example, it emerged that a state minister approved a mine’s construction even as officials fed information to industry lobbyists. Nor is this an isolated incident. WA ministers have permitted ‘legal damage’ to Aboriginal sites over 900 times – but never used the power of the AHA to boost the rights of traditional custodians.

All this begs an obvious question. Given the increased emphasis on indigenous and minority rights the world over, from Minneapolis to Delhi, why is Australia still witnessing outrages like Juukan Gorge? The answer can plausibly be contained in a single word: economics. Though Tim Buckley – director at Climate Energy Finance – warns that mining’s importance to the Australian exchequer can be overstated, it’s indisputable that the country has the planet’s biggest reserves of gold and extracts double the iron ore of its nearest competitor. All told, mining represents around 10% of the Australian economy and employs 2.1% of the national workforce.

With numbers like that floating about, it is perhaps unsurprising that Australia’s politicians ultimately feel more loyalty to big business than they do their Aboriginal constituents. That’s especially true given the apparent importance of mining to war chests in Canberra. For example, one 2016 report studied six cases where mining companies made donations to major political parties – and then enjoyed favourable legislation in the northern state of Queensland.

Can there be a fairer system?

Soon after the debacle at Juukan Gorge, Western Australian politicians leapt into action. Promising fundamental reform of the AHA, Mark Gowan, the state’s premier, declared it would be replaced by “the most progressive cultural heritage legislation in the country”. Stephen Dawson, WA’s Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, agreed, describing the new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill (ACHB) as giving indigenous Australians “the right” to protect their most precious sites. And to be fair, the bill does offer some concrete changes. Among other things, WA’s traditional owners can apply to turn a site into a ‘protected area’, while coercion and intimidation on the part of mining concerns are now banned explicitly.

All this sounds great in theory. But insiders are less convinced. Significantly, Fitzgerald notes that, like its 1972 precursor, the ACHB still leaves much power in the hands of politicians – without giving Aboriginal people the right to appeal decisions that don’t go their way. Buckley agrees. “There’s no chance,” he says, “of any meaningful regulatory reform.” Nor is Western Australia unique. In 2019, for instance, the Queensland government quietly removed ‘native title’ over 1,385ha of land, ensuring a controversial Adani Group coal mine could go ahead. On a national scale, meanwhile, existing legislation only gives traditional owners a six-month window to negotiate with mining firms before being sidelined.

And what of mining companies themselves? Like their counterparts in government, they are making the right noises. To give one example, Rio Tinto in 2021 established a new ‘communities and social performance’ model to measure relations with indigenous people. That’s shadowed by a $50m investment to attract and retain Aboriginal staff. Considering the situation many indigenous Australians find themselves in – often living in isolated villages and earning half as much as their non-native fellows – such schemes could really make a difference to their standard of living. That’s doubly true given how reliant many Aboriginal people are on mining. According to a recent census report, indigenous Australians account for 3.8% of the mining workforce, well above the average for other industries.

All the same, Fitzgerald warns that these economic arguments should never be allowed to whitewash unpopular plans. “Aboriginal people should have the right to prevent the destruction of, or interference with, heritage of importance to them in any event.” A case in point is Adani’s coal mine in Queensland, a mammoth facility that could extract as much as 10 million tonnes of the black stuff each year. Together with new railway links, the project could be a boon for the regional economy. The Indian giant, for its part, has also set an indigenous employment target of at least 7.5%. Yet, like with his scepticism towards Australia’s politicians, Buckley gives these claims short shrift. “In the absence of any facts, a press release does not constitute fact,” he says, suggesting that local Wangan and Jagalingou people have generally only been offered menial jobs as bus drivers or cleaners.

Investing in tomorrow?

With the range of economic and political forces arrayed against them, what hope do Australia’s Aboriginal peoples have to redress the balance? Buckley, for his part, is pessimistic. “Australia has spent the last 250-odd years making sure our traditional owners have been virtually exterminated,” he says. “We don’t have any national respect for them – and anything that is given is pure lip service.” Considering the long and often destructive story of Australian mining, that does seem like a reasonable position. Nor do cynics have to delve into the history books to make their point. Despite ferocious opposition, after all, Adani’s Queensland coal mine finally began operations in late 2021.

Fitzgerald, though, is slightly more optimistic. In particular, he wonders whether investors could ultimately help prod the industry towards change. To explain what he means, Fitzgerald offers the case study of the so-called Dhawura Ngilan collaboration, whereby investors and Aboriginal communities have teamed up to hold mining operators to account. That’s echoed by other examples of financiers taking a stand, notably when Pacific Investment Management lately refused to take part in an Adani port development. At the same time, Fitzgerald suggests that as ESG continues to grow in importance, mining companies may themselves be obliged to change course, especially as competition for new greenfield sites increases. Not, of course, that any of that can bring back the treasures lost at Juukan Gorge.

This article first appeared in World Mining Frontiers magazine.