BHP has held off a portion of its South Flank mine development in the Pilbara region of Western Australia due to its impact on cultural heritage sites belonging to the Banjima people.
Approval to blast 40 Aboriginal sites was given by Western Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt in late May, amid public outcry over the destruction of historic Juukan Gorge caves by Rio Tinto.
BHP has pledged not to interfere with the sacred sites until it has conducted further consultation with the Banjima people.
“That consultation will be based on our commitment to understanding the cultural significance of the region and on the deep respect we have for the Banjima people and their heritage,” BHP stated.
BHP will be focussing on further scientific study and discussion regarding the mitigation and preservation of the Banjima community’s sites, with the company stating that its relationship with the Banjima people spans more than 20 years.
“This relationship is of fundamental importance to our organisation,” BHP stated.
BHP initially proposed the planned blasting in October last year under a section 18 application.
“Section 18 consents are one part of the company’s broader approach to heritage management. In addition to consulting with traditional owners as part of regulatory approvals,” BHP stated.
“The agreement making process provides a framework for traditional owners to identify, map and agree on those areas that require the greatest protections.”
Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (BNTAC) only received notice of the decision on June 11, according to BNTAC chairman Maitland Parker.
“BNTAC has only just received notice of the Western Australian Minister for Aboriginal Affairs decision on the approval of Section 18 in South Flank. BNTAC will need to consider the detail of the Ministers decision before making any further comment,” he said in a statement last week.
“As a matter of lore and culture shared with other traditional owners across Australia and the world, the Banjima people do not support the destruction of sites of cultural significance.
“We stand with all Aboriginal traditional owners and particularly our Pilbara brothers and sisters, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura at this time, in our abhorrence at the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters, and those suffering the threat of or having recently experienced similar site destruction.”
Western Australia’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt announced he would be reforming the Aboriginal heritage legislation, which would see an increase in authority from Traditional Owners and an end to section 18.
“I want to lessen the role the government plays in decisions around heritage and increase the authority of Traditional Owners,” Wyatt told the ABC.
“It is the very reason I am reforming Aboriginal heritage legislation, which will end the section 18 process and reinforce the need for land users to negotiate directly with Traditional Owners.
“Native title holders are the bodies best-placed to made decision about their own heritage places. Australia has a sad history of governments deciding what is in the best interests of Aboriginal people.”
Construction at the South Flank project began in 2018, with BHP expecting the operation to provide jobs to over 9000 people over its life.
It was built to replace BHP’s Yandi mine and is set to become the largest iron ore processing facility built in Western Australia.
“As with any agreement, some circumstances can change including the understanding of heritage values of particular sites. I urge parties to such agreements to cooperate on management of those changed circumstances,” Wyatt said.
“I have asked BHP to work with Banjima to do what it can to avoid or minimise the impact on this site, regardless of the Section 18 approval.”