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  • Brendan Shaw

When profit isn’t everything: 46,000 years of cultural history vs the iron ore spot price

Updated: Jun 4, 2020

Brendan Shaw

“Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land”

- Puutu Kunti Kurrama people, traditional owners of Juukan Gorge Caves, Western Australia

In recent days, one of Australia’s largest mining companies blew up two historic Aboriginal cave sites in the Pilbara in Western Australia that were dated at more than 46,000 years old.

The destruction of a piece of Australia’s history and cultural heritage to facilitate iron ore mining triggers all sorts of discussions and emotions.

The issues run deep on this issue and cut across the value of cultural heritage, Aboriginal rights, environmental protection and Australia’s economic development strategy.

The facts

Australian company, Rio Tinto, in late May 2020 detonated explosives at two 46,000 year old ancient Aboriginal rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara, Western Australia.

In a breathtaking lack of foresight, the company timed the demolition with the start of National Reconciliation Week, a national annual event to recognise and celebrate the contribution of indigenous Australians.

The company was given approval to develop the mine site by the Western Australian state government back in 2013 under legislation that has not been reviewed since the 1970s.

The traditional owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama, while acknowledging that the company had complied with all legal obligations, said that "Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land”.

Apparently, they only found out about the imminent destruction of their traditional sites by accident. They were not told that the site was to be demolished in advance of the charges being laid.

Apart from the spiritual and cultural significance of the site, its historical value is difficult to describe. Evidence has demonstrated that humans have been living at this site for at least 46,000 years. It is the only inland site in Australia to show evidence of continual human habitation through the last Ice Age.

In the years leading up to its demolition, archaeologists surveying the site discovered numerous artefacts of “staggering” importance, including:

  • grinding and pounding stones, believed to be the earliest grindstone technology found in Western Australia

  • a 4,000 year old belt made of plaited hair which, incidentally, matched the DNA of today’s traditional owners, and

  • a 28,000 year old kangaroo leg bone fashioned into a bone tool – the oldest example of bone technology found in Australia.

The Juukan Gorge incident has revealed a flaw in the current legislation whereby approvals given years earlier – before a site’s cultural significance is fully known – can be used by a company to destroy such important sites. The approvals for the Juukan Gorge caves were given in 2013 before the full archaeological significance of the sites was realised in 2014.

The company’s public apology for the destruction, of sorts, which it is calling a ‘mistake’, has made headlines worldwide.

Economic value vs cultural value

Putting a value on iron ore is relatively easy.

The iron ore spot price today is over US$ 100 per US ton, the highest level since August, as the COVID-19 outbreak limits supply in Brazil and as China’s demand increases as its economy comes of out of lockdown.

Iron ore plays an important role in Australia’s economic development and is a key example of how Australians earn their income. In 2018 Australia exported more than $A 63 billion worth of iron ore, accounting for 14% of Australia’s total export income, making it the second top export for the country after coal.

Shawview Consulting chart. Data source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. "Australia's top 10 goods and services exports and imports", , accessed 1/6/2020.

Australia has a long history of digging stuff out of the ground or harvesting the environment to earn its living and, unfortunately, also a long history of destroying Aboriginal sites for the sake of development.

One can’t help but wonder whether we can keep going like this.

At least half of Australia’s entire annual export revenue comes from mining products that have been dug up or extracted out of the ground.

The total value of Rio Tinto’s Brockman 4 mine, where the Juukan Gorge caves were destroyed, is probably about $38.4 billion, taking into account recent iron ore spot prices and the mine's iron ore reserves.

Putting a dollar value on the the Juukan Gorge caves is much more difficult.

The value of their cultural, spiritual and historical heritage for all Australians including the local traditional owners is almost impossible to determine.

But some comparisons might help start to understand their significance.

Would the British have allowed BHP to blow up Stonehenge to make way for a copper mine?

What would have the worldwide reaction have been if the Egyptians had allowed ExxonMobil to blow up the Great Pyramid of Giza to develop a new oil field?

Would the Italians have been happy to let Anglo American destroy the Colosseum to open up a coal mine in the middle of Rome?

All of these monuments – Stonehenge, the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Colosseum – are only a few thousand years old and are positively modern compared to the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge caves.

There was certainly international condemnation when Islamic State destroyed the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in 2015 in Syria and when the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001.

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves has been compared to these events by experts, with one UNESCO chair calling it “one of the worst destructions of an archaeological site in recent memory“.

It will also be interesting to see what investors’ reaction to this is, given the growth of environmental, social and governance (ESG) investment.

Australia’s strategy going forward

This debate about the value of the past versus the value of the future comes at a time when Australia is right now debating its future economic strategy.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent problems in the global economy and supply chains has reignited the debate about Australia’s future economic strategy. The current discussion is whether Australia should continue earning its money primarily from digging stuff up out of the ground and exporting it cheaply or put more focus on adding value and building wealth based on the country’s science, technology and skills.

This debate itself has a long history. It stretches back at least to the post-war era debates about developing Australian manufacturing and service sectors. The question is whether Australia should do more to develop complex innovative industries where competitiveness relies more on the knowledge, skills and value in what people create than the value of what is dug out of the ground or harvested from the environment.

Some of us have spent much of our professional career arguing that it should.

Australia can and should be doing more to foster our innovative, high-technology industries like pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical devices, software, space, environmental technologies and renewable energy technologies for a host of economic, environmental and cultural reasons.

There are those arguing that Australia should ramp up its mining industry and develop its mineral exports even more.

There may be opportunities here, but for that to happen in a 21st century country like Australia we have to get our act together and ensure we don’t blow up our Stonehenges and Great Pyramids to make a buck.

We’ve clearly got a long way to go.

Disclaimer: Brendan Shaw consults to science-based life science, pharmaceutical and medical device companies that invest in developing high technology, high value-added products and services. He is passionate about archaeology and is a history tragic.

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