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Aboriginal rock shelter in Pilbara damaged after BHP promised not to disturb heritage sites

Lorena Allam
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Tim Wimborne/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Tim Wimborne/Reuters

A registered Aboriginal site has been damaged at one of BHP’s iron ore mines in the Pilbara less than eight months after the mining giant promised not to disturb any sites in the area without “further deep consultation” with the Banjima traditional owners.

The site, a culturally significant rock shelter, was reportedly damaged by a rockfall in late January. It is one of several Banjima sites located in and around BHP’s mining area C near its $4.5bn South Flank iron ore mining operation.

BHP said the heritage site was not part of its current mining operations and the cause of the rockfall was not known. The site was first recorded in 2005.

The Banjima native title Aboriginal corporation (BNTAC) said BHP wrote to them in late January to say there had been a “rockfall impact” to the site.

Related: BHP shareholders withdraw resolution on Aboriginal heritage sites after deal struck with traditional owners

In July last year, BHP vowed not to damage 40 Aboriginal heritage sites which it had received ministerial permission to destroy, without “further extensive consultation” with traditional owners. The pledge came after Guardian Australia revealed traditional owners had been legally prevented from speaking publicly about the sites.

BHP was given ministerial consent to destroy them under Western Australia’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws on 29 March, three days after Rio Tinto blew up a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site at Juukan Gorge, triggering international condemnation.

“We will not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation with the Banjima people,” a BHP spokesman said at the time. “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 also announced it would establish a heritage advisory council in partnership with BNTAC.

It is this newly established South Flank Heritage Advisory Council that is now investigating what caused the damage to the rock shelter.

The council met with BHP executives on 11 February, a BNTAC spokesman said, to “clarify the initial report’s details and progress the investigation”. The investigation is ongoing.

BHP’s president of minerals in Australia, Edgar Basto, said he and Western Australia iron ore boss Brandon Craig had met with the Banjima and were “committed to learning from the outcomes of the joint investigation”.

“The relationships we hold with the traditional custodians of the land on which we operate are critically important to BHP,” Basto said.

“Over many years, we have built a strong relationship with the Banjima people based on deep respect for their heritage and their connection to country. This includes the establishment of the Banjima Heritage Advisory Council last year. We will continue to work with the Banjima in a spirit of respect and cooperation.”