BHP gets approval to destroy 40 Aboriginal heritage sites just days after Rio Tinto controversy

WAtoday has approached the Banjima people for comment, but it is unlikely the group will speak out because of an ironclad land use agreement signed with BHP for the South Flank mine that does not allow them to publicly oppose it.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt, who faced calls to resign for approving the Rio Tinto blast at protests in Perth earlier this week, approved BHP’s application under the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act.

He said through the process the Banjima people did identify a new significant site that was not included in a list of 72 exclusion zones identified in the land use agreement signed in 2015.

Mr Wyatt said he did not receive an objection to the Section 18 application, though he did encourage BHP to work with the Banjima people to avoid disturbing the newly identified site regardless of the approval.

Mr Wyatt defended his decision to approve the South Flank application and said he wanted less government involvement in negotiations between companies and native title holders.

“As Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, I want to see impacts to Aboriginal sites limited to the practical extent possible. I am also a great believer in self-determination for Aboriginal people and support native title groups using their hard-won rights to make commercial agreements with land users,” he said.

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“The ability to negotiate such agreements is one of the real tangible benefits which come from the often long and torturous process to have native title rights recognised.

“Companies such as BHP make significant investment decisions on the basis of these agreements with native title groups which in turn generate substantial benefits.”

Mr Wyatt said these issues were the very reason the WA government was in the process of reforming Aboriginal heritage legislation, which would 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,” he said.

“Australia has a sad history of governments deciding what is in the best interests of Aboriginal people.”

A BHP spokeswoman said it valued its relationship with the Banjima they had developed over many years, including 10 years of consultation and scientific research at South Flank.

“As part of our ongoing engagement, we speak regularly with the Banjima community and have reiterated our commitment to working closely with them through the lifecycle of the South Flank development to minimise impacts on cultural heritage,” she said.

The spokeswoman said the company’s first principle was to avoid impacts to cultural heritage, which was supported by the land use agreements it signed with traditional owners.

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WA Greens MP for the mining and pastoral region Robin Chapple is a vocal critic of the land use agreements, which he said left traditional owners with a decision to receive payment for the destruction of heritage sites or fight it and risk the government intervening and have it happen anyway without compensation.

“You’re caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” he said.

On Tuesday hundreds of protesters rallied outside Rio Tinto’s Perth headquarters calling for the immediate resignation of Rio Tinto chief executive Chris Salisbury, and state and federal Aboriginal affairs ministers Ben Wyatt and Ken Wyatt following the Juukan Gorge blast.

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