AFR Opinion Piece – Burchell Hayes – Relationships not regulation, key to protection

Recently, the federal government released its response to how it would prevent further disasters like the desecration at Juukan Gorge, a sacred part of my people’s culture and country, from happening again.

At that time, I expressed the frustration and disappointment that Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people we were not consulted about the federal government’s intentions. An email or call to our office less than 48 hours befora Canberra announcement still doesn’t cut it as an attempt at consultation in my book – at best it’s a heads-up. This was an opportunity to invite the PKKP to be part of the conversation about the laws that impact not only our cultural heritage, but the Country of all First Nations people.

When governments are determining policy and changing laws that impact the business community, they make time for the CEOs and billionaires. For meaningful change to happen, Traditional Owners need to be treated with the same level of respect.

What is clear is that the federal government will now begin to change their heritage protection and native title laws. This follows the Western Australian Government’s new Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which will attempt to address the failures of the previous legislation in protecting the Juukan rock shelters.

These laws are designed to be a safety net, but so were the ones that ultimately betrayed us along with a mining company’s greed and failed corporate culture.

For the PKKP, the solution to protecting Country and Aboriginal culture is relationships, not regulation. In the aftermath of what happened at Juukan Gorge, and with the sadness and anger that we still feel, our corporation and its members decided to rewrite and rebuild the relationship with Rio Tinto. We understand that we need to find better ways to co-exist and manage Country, and part of the process is building mutual respect and trust.

The key to working with Rio Tinto has been working on a co-management agreement. The principle is simple – we work with the mining company to protect culture and give us an equal say in what happens on our Country. We understand that there needs to be laws to prevent wrongdoing, but they are not going to help keep our culture alive and that is why talking and sharing is so important to First Nations people.

Think of Aboriginal culture as a living being that breathes the air, drinks from the watering holes and eats from the land – it is understood by connecting with our people and feeling what we feel.

Co-management will apply to every aspect of a mine life cycle, from the planning to the closure and rehabilitation. It requires mutual obligation and shared responsibility, and the miner and the PKKP people must be committed to the best outcomes for it to work successfully.

It makes clear how we both communicate and resolve differences. It gives our people a greater role to work on the ground monitoring and engaging with the mining people.

And it sets out what we as Traditional Owners want to achieve from what happens on our Country – protection of culture and environment, and economic and social opportunity.

Co-management agreements will not replace the obligations under the new legislation, but they aim to provide better protection. For this reason, we will negotiate and sign them first.

We are already negotiating these agreements with Rio Tinto Iron Ore (RTIO) and FMG. A heads of agreement has already been signed with RTIO and we are moving to finalise co-management with them.

Legislation can always be watered down or changed in the name of politics, particularly when business leaders are given greater privileges and access to political leaders than First Nations people. We believe our co-management model provides more certainty and protection than that for Traditional Owners, and it will be beneficial for other Aboriginal organisations that are negotiating land access agreements with mining and resources companies.

We know what went wrong at Juukan Gorge and this is the best way to stop the same thing happening again.

Burchell Hayes, Indigenous leader
Dec 13, 2022