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Rio Tinto / BHP's iron mining destroys sacred Aboriginal sites, Western Australia


The Pilbara is a large and thinly populated region in the north of Western Australia. It is known for its Aboriginal Banjima people; its ancient landscapes; the red earth; and its vast mineral deposits, in particular iron ore [1]. Exactly here the mining giant BHP Billiton wants to expand its South Flank iron ore mining project [2].

It so happens that Rio Tinto is also mining in the area (Brockman mine)  and in May 2020 it blasted a sacred site in Western Australia that showed 46,000 years of continual occupation and provided a 4,000-year-old genetic link to present-day traditional owners. This was destroyed in the expansion of an iron ore mine. The cave in Juukan George in the Hammersley Ranges, about 60km from Mt Tom Price,  was one of the oldest in the western Pilbara region and the only inland site in Australia to show signs of continual human occupation through the last Ice Age.

Mining company Rio Tinto received ministerial consent to destroy or damage the site in 2013 under WA’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws, which were drafted in 1972 to favour mining proponents. On 26 May 2020 the Juukan George cave was destroyed by Rio Tinto.

The traditional owners--Aboriginal people-- strongly oppose to the mine on their sacred landscapes [2]. Especially because the mining project takes palace near 86 heritage sites. The company Rio Tinto destroyed this 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cave on the site with detonation explosives [4]. Furthermore, 300 peaceful protesters gathered outside Rio Tinto’s Perth headquarters to protest against the mining giant’s destruction of the significant Indigenous sites [5]. The protesters argued that Rio had exploited the weakness of Western Australia’s Aboriginal heritage legislation and used that against the people and then turned and blamed (it on) misunderstandings between the company and the custodians of the site-- the Banjima people [4] [5]. 

The company stated how there was no record of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKPAC) asking it to stop mining in the area until mid-May 2020 when the blasting was already loaded. But PKKPAC director stated that the company was very aware of the damages the project can lead to: “That isn’t true because for years, we have made mention how significant those sites were,” the director said [5].

Then comes BHP with the plan in June 2020 of blasting more Aboriginal sacred sites to expand its 4-billion South Flank mine in the same Pibara region. This was stopped on 10 June 2020,  the Australian government has established a moratorium on any further work already granted under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act [5]. That legislation, however, does not give traditional owners the right to appeal [2]. Western Australia had approved BHP's application to disturb 40 (out of 86 potential) culturally significant Aboriginal sites as part of a mine expansion, only days after the Rio Tinto company destroyed sacred caves in the area [6].By 12 June 2020, Rio Tinto confronted protests from the public and even from investors.  The Rio Tinto CEO said sorry for sacred caves blast. Jean-Sebastien Jacques  apologised for distress caused by Rio’s destruction last month of two ancient and sacred Aboriginal caves in Western Australia, pledging full cooperation with an Australian

“We are very sorry for the distress we have caused the PKKP in relation to Juukan Gorge and our first priority remains rebuilding trust with the PKKP,” Jacques said in a statement, referring to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.

With state government approval, the world’s biggest iron ore mining company destroyed two caves at Juukan Gorge that had previously contained evidence of continual human habitation stretching back 46,000 years as part of its Brockman mine expansion in the iron-rich Pilbara region.[7]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Rio Tinto / BHP's iron mining destroys sacred Aboriginal sites, Western Australia
State or province:Western Australia
Location of conflict:Pilbara
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mining exploration and/or ore extraction
Specific commodities:Iron ore

Project Details and Actors

Project details

In June 2018 BHP made a final investment decision on the $4.5 billion South Flank Project, which created 2,500 construction jobs and 600 ongoing operational roles. However, historical Banjima Aboriginal sites, culture and identity are at stake.

Level of Investment for the conflictive project4,500,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:500-1000 [2]
Start of the conflict:05/2020
Company names or state enterprises:Rio Tinto (Rio Tinto ) from United Kingdom
BHP Billiton (BHP) from United Kingdom
Relevant government actors:The Western Australia government hopes to pass its new Aboriginal cultural heritage bill this year (2020), which will provide for agreements between traditional owners and companies to consider new information and be amended by mutual consent. Hower the WA Government approved BHP Group’s application to disturb 40 culturally significant Aboriginal sites.
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:-Banjima people
- Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKPAC)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Social movements
Banjima people. Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Development of alternative proposals
Objections to the EIA
Shareholder/financial activism.
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation
Potential: Noise pollution, Waste overflow, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Violations of human rights
Potential: Displacement


Project StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Strengthening of participation
Under negotiation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Proposal and development of alternatives:Historical sites significant to Banjima people under consideration. Rio Tinto promised a comprehensive review of heritage processes [5].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:Due to both Aboriginal and civil society protests Rio Tinto has apologised for the 46,000-year-old cave destruction but it is unknown whether reparations are being considered. Western Australia’s heritage laws, written in 1972, are under review. BHP was stopped in June 2020 from carrying out similar destruction neaby. Yet the project has not been canceled.

Sources & Materials

[1] Wikipedia: Pilbara, Western Australia

[2] The Guardian 2020: BHP to destroy at least 40 Aboriginal sites, up to 15,000 years old, to expand Pilbara mine

[3] News 2020: BHP halts destruction of 40 sacred Aboriginal sites amid outcry over Rio Tinto blasting of Juukan caves

[4] The Sunday Morning Hearld 2020: BHP halts mine expansion plans after backlash over Aboriginal heritage sites

[5] 2020: Hundreds rally in Perth over Rio Tinto rock blast that destroyed ancient Indigenous site

[6] Reuters: Australian state says BHP can disturb 40 sacred sites in mine expansion

[7] Melanie Burton. MELBOURNE (Reuters). 12 June 2020.

Meta information

Last update15/06/2020
Conflict ID:5096



Supporters against the destruction of Aboriginal historical sites


Expansion of South Flank iron ore mine

Source: The Guardian

Protests against the expansion of South Flank iron ore