The Destruction Of Aboriginal Heritage And The Commercialisation Of Australia’s Outback
“just the tip of the iceberg of inequality experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia”
Mining in Australia continues to disempower Indigenous people. The fact that heritage destruction still occurs in contemporary mining exposes systemic flaws in corporate policy such as the ‘social license to operate’. This is a nation whose ecosystems are still reeling from summer bushfires; fires which ‘directly affected 1 in 8 Indigenous people’ (Wahlquist — Guardian).
Following shocking reports of Rio Tinto’s decimation of a 46,000-year old Aboriginal site, questions still need to be answered by BHP, another of Australia’s leading mining corporations. Here, according to Allam and Wahlquist’s report for the Guardian, a further “40 Aboriginal sites” will be destroyed to make room for the continued construction of the Pilbara mine. It remains clear that companies dispossess Aboriginal people under the guise of ‘good business’.
Recent events include one that left the Juukan Gorge all but destroyed, despite promised protection on behalf of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People. Today many injustices in mining still go unreported as resource extraction activities are notoriously hard to critically assess. The conservation of Indigenous sites involve complex legal contracts which try to realign communities with stolen land. However, the mechanisms that allow for Indigenous incorporation, such as Native Title, have been widely critiqued. As the recent reports of blasting of sacred Indigenous spaces show, such destructive actions are clearly more than a simple lack of communication, but are a result of legal tools which perpetuate mining.
These stand as just the tip of the iceberg of inequality experienced by Aboriginal people in Australia. Harmful acts continue to strip away Indigenous history and are also detrimental to the environment.
“these events are clearly more than a simple lack of communication”
In Australia, large gaps exist between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous population. This public health disparity is reflected in the shocking 2016 Australian Health report and inequalities are also exposed in incarceration rates. Indigenous people are “likely to die at younger ages and to have [a] higher prevalence of many chronic health conditions.” Equally appalling is the “10.6 year” average age of mortality, existing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous males “born in 2010–12”. Indigenous people make up just two per cent of the population, yet they are 28 per cent of the national prisoner demographic. This includes more than 400 deaths, to date, in custody according to the 1991 Royal Commission.
Finally, with a consistent denial of frontier violence and with only relatively recent constitutional reforms, such as the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, the Australian state still struggles to recognise Aboriginal communities’ basic human rights.
The Failure Of Development To Help Indigenous People
Today, alongside these social and health inequalities, the erasure of Aboriginal history continues through the actions of mining companies. Here, the industries profits are partially shared through royalties to indigenous communities, but don’t provide tangible benefits for all Indigenous people, as health and incarceration rates exemplify. Protecting heritage involves lengthy processes where communities must prove they are a “continuing” Indigenous culture. This supports the problematic static presentation of Aboriginal people as a museum artefact, rather than people suffering at the hands of a powerful and oppressive Western country.
This lack of care or consideration for Aboriginal people is perhaps most insidious on resource frontiers. Here, in the mineral-rich outback of Australia injustice continues out of sight and out of mind, creating profit and value for a selected elite and propping up unfair political institutions. A 2020 ‘Investors Guide’ for Australia’s Energy and Mineral Resources cites that the country is “an under-explored content with highly prospective geology.” A an empty land still in need of ‘discovering’ to produce value for shareholders. Despite modern reforms and concessions, they all but fail to support the disenfranchised members of Australia’s Indigenous communities.
“injustice continues out of sight and out of mind, creating profit and value for a selected elite and propping up unfair political institutions”
The asymmetries of power and unquestionable inequality still experienced by Aboriginal people is clear. We live in a world where there is a proliferation of sustainable, green and conservation mining treaties. The existence of these contracts is to respect Indigenous rights as well as ensure the symbolic and physical protection of their culture. Despite their multiplicity, acts of seemingly outlandish heritage destruction continue. This marks a failure of policies such as Native Title to reconstitute Indigenous people on their own terms. Furthermore, it also calls into question the legitimacy of sustainability standards. Clearly these measures actually embolden mining, producing profits for investors, whilst offering token gestures of incorporation and participation.
Understanding Our Past And Present To Make A Better Future
Protecting history, identifying racism and enforcing good behaviour overlap when looking at issues of heritage. Following the emotional outcry of the Black Lives Matter movement, people continue to fight for basic freedoms and call out systemic racism experienced by black people. These contain an outcry for the greater acknowledgement of white supremacy, colonialism and imperialism. They join people globally who are subject to persecution due to their race, religion, ethnicity, sex or sexuality. Individuals, communities and civil society groups join a long history of civil justice initiatives.
“We need to build tools and skills which will enable greater reflexivity and, ultimately work towards decolonising our own lives”
Despite the power and energy of these movements, in Australia neoliberal development continues the commercialisation of Aboriginal land. There is a need for more than just a re-imagining of mining activity, but to operate with an acute awareness of a long history of injustice. This will begin to deconstruct and disempower institutions which continue the violent destruction of Aboriginal lives. Equally, more needs to be done to allow for forms of Indigenous governance to organically grow. As Brue Pascoe notes in his book Dark Emu continuing to build a future for Indigenous communities starts now.
‘“The opportunity to be involved in the future of the country will release Aboriginal people from some of the shackles of colonialism. The country will still be colonised… We will approach the idea of One Nation not by exclusion, by an inclusion that rarely gets mentioned: Aboriginal participation”’
Excerpt From: Bruce Pascoe. “Dark Emu”. Apple Books.
Working towards an autonomous, self-determined Aboriginal nation in Australia is the only way to empower these people on their own terms. This can begin a long process to find ways to transcend historical injustice; acknowledging violence and genocide. We need to build tools and skills which will enable greater reflexivity and, ultimately work towards decolonising our own lives.
Originally published at https://theowp.org on June 20, 2020.