The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people have lived in the Pilbara region in the north of Western Australia (WA) since time immemorial. More than 2,000 generations of PKKP have continuously occupied this land, which contains the Juukan Gorge.
A length of plaited human hair, found in a cave and DNA tested, belonged to an ancestor of PKKP people alive today. The gorge — with its ancient rock shelters and treasure of significant artefacts — is the oldest known site of human occupation on the continent and possibly the world. It is sacred to the PKKP.
Lying beneath this special place are eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore. In 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto, a British-Australian multinational, dynamited the area. They knowingly destroyed the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge caves!
Public outrage sent shock waves that rippled through the corporate world. Rio Tinto’s willful desecration was branded a “failure of corporate governance.” Corporate management shifted into damage control. The CEO and two of his deputies exited with golden handshakes on the way out, leaving an unmistakable odour of tokenism.
Rio Tinto’s rotten record. The world’s second largest mining company now operates on six continents. Striking a pose of social responsibility, Rio Tinto rides roughshod over First Nations people and land. Its so-called largesse amounts to low pay, poor safety standards and a gutted environment.
Rio Tinto began operations in Spain in 1873. As early as 1888, its workforce rebelled against toxic fumes. By the mid 20th century, workers in England had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Canadian uranium miners were exposed to radiation seven times the maximum safe limit.
During South Africa’s apartheid, Rio Tinto paid its Black copper miners less than the minimum wage set by the racist regime. Black workers in its Namibian uranium mine lived in squalid camps, paid sub-subsistence wages in conditions akin to slavery.
Today, the corporation exploits legal standards of precarious work to evade accountability. In Madagascar, for example, its outsourced workers earn one-quarter the wage of those directly employed. In Australia, permanent workers are fired as casual labour skyrockets.
Rio Tinto also leaves a trail of environmental devastation. In West Papua, pollution from its Grasberg mine has killed whole river systems. Three decades after the closure of the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, the site has deteriorated, poisoning the land and waterways. Bougainvilleans are still fighting for recompense. Their latest effort is a human rights case against the company, which the Australian government has had to accept.
The mining goliath’s mistreatment of First Nations is global. In Quebec, the Innu have charged it with ignoring Aboriginal land title. Rio Tinto destroyed significant sites of Indigenous herders in Mongolia, impacting their land-based culture and ancient traditions. The company is facing sustained resistance from the Apache tribe in Arizona, who are defending Oak Flat, a sacred site on the San Carlos Indian Reservation.
All part of the plan. The destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves cannot be accepted as a mistake. And governments, both state and federal, are complicit.
A parliamentary enquiry concluded that Rio Tinto “knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway.” But this admission ignores its own role. Governments at all levels preside over a web of cultural heritage legislation that routinely fails to protect significant sites. The Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act permits the Minister to green-light projects by overriding other legislation and allow activities that would otherwise constitute an offence. There’s no requirement to involve Indigenous people or anthropologists, and there are no appeal rights. That Rio Tinto broke no laws shows that the issue isn’t a rogue company — it’s the system!
The WA government relies on mining royalties. In the 2019 financial year, this amounted to $5.6 billion. The benefits are reciprocal. In the same period, $22 billion of Rio Tinto’s $29 billion earnings came from its operations in the Pilbara alone! Booming commodity prices continue to drive exploration in Australia. The share of the economy from extraction has grown from 5% of GDP in 2005 to just under 10% in 2019. Mining giants pour huge funds into the coffers of major parties in Australia to block policies that might limit their profitability. And the returns are good.
The post-WWII boom set mining companies on a global hunt for mineral deposits. Exploration in Australia was massive. While First Nations people do not necessarily oppose all mining, they demand recognition of their sovereignty and genuine protection of sacred sites. Ensuing clashes between First Nations and mining corporations have gone on for decades. These range from Nookanbah in the west to Aurukun and Weipa on Cape York, to battles over uranium mining on the lands of the Mirrar people around Kakadu. Because the majority of mining takes place on lands of traditional owners, these companies have the same material interest in destroying the connection to country that early pastoralists did.
The capitalist system perpetrates genocide against First Nations. Dispossession of First Nations is the business model required to maximise profits. Riches from mining are not only extracted from the stolen labour of the working class, but from the theft of land and the degradation of the earth itself. For First Nations people and those who toil in the mines of Rio Tinto, the solution is to dispossess the capitalists.
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