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Rock shelter blasting by mining company likened to Taliban

CANBERRA, Australia — An Australian minister has compared a mining company blowing up ancient rock shelters to the Taliban’s destruction of giant Buddha sculptures and pledged on Thursday to improve the protection of indigenous cultural heritage.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek said Rio Tinto acted lawfully in 2020 when it destroyed two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia, which had been inhabited for 46,000 years.

She said Australian laws would be updated to prevent such destruction of sacred Indigenous sites from happening again.

“It is unthinkable for any culture to knowingly destroy Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids or the Lascaux caves in France,” Plibersek told parliament.

“When the Bamyan Buddhas were destroyed in Afghanistan, the world was rightly outraged. But that is precisely what happened at Juukan Gorge,” she added.

Two 1,500-year-old giant Buddhas carved into the side of a cliff in Afghanistan’s Bamyan Valley were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 because the statues were considered idols.

Rio Tinto demolished the caves, which contained tens of thousands of years old artifacts, to get the cheapest possible access to iron ore reserves. The chairman, CEO and two other leaders of the Anglo-Australian company lost their jobs following outrage over the destruction.

Plibersek has committed his government to drafting new laws with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, a group of 30 indigenous organizations, to better protect their cultural heritage.

His centre-left Labor government, which replaced the previous Conservative administration in the May election, also responded to an interim and final report of a parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of Juukan Gorge.

The government accepted all but one of the reports’ recommendations. The report wants the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to have ultimate responsibility for the protection of cultural heritage. The government would prefer that Plibersek take responsibility and the matter would be resolved in discussions with the Aboriginal alliance.

Jamie Lowe, chief executive of the National Native Title Council, which represents Australia’s traditional landowners, welcomed the government’s promised changes, which he said were long overdue.

“The disaster, destruction and act of violence against Juukan Gorge and the people of the PKKP about two years ago is something that happens regularly to our people and the need for comprehensive national reform is something that has been a priority for our people for decades,” Lowe told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., referring to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, the traditional owners of the gorge.

The PKKR Aboriginal Corp. said the traditional owners of the demolished caves had not been adequately respected or consulted by the government. “We would have expected the minister to want to meet with us before making a public announcement about our country and our cultural heritage,” the Corp chairman said. Burchell Hayes in a statement.


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