Andy Diaper is an independent social researcher. He works with vulnerable and excluded people within the community. His main research interests are groups that are excluded, harmed, and criminalised, including indigenous populations.
On 24th May 2020, two ancient rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia were destroyed by blasting. The Anglo-Australian multinational mining corporation Rio Tinto carried out the blasting work. This was to increase the size of their open-cut iron ore mine named Brockman 4. These shelters were sacred sites to the indigenous population and of great archaeological/spiritual importance. This was the only site in Australia to show continual human occupation stretching back forty-six thousand years.
Rio Tinto were fully aware of both the historical (they had commissioned an archaeological survey of the site) and the spiritual importance. It was not the only option for the expansion, they had investigated four options: three of which would not have damaged the rock shelters. The reason this option was chosen was it would yield an extra eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore with a net value of seventy-five million pounds.
The traditional owners of the area the Poutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP) only learned of the blasting nine days before the detonation. Lawyers acting on behalf of the PKKP contacted the Federal Indigenous Affairs minister to intervene on heritage grounds. The minister’s office never replied to the lawyers. It should be made clear that Rio Tinto were acting under section 18 of the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.
Was this act a singular event? Or a misunderstanding? Rio Tinto has a very poor record in its dealings with the environment and indigenous populations. This event can be viewed as a continuation of the cultural genocide of the indigenous people of Australia.
This cultural genocide is not carried out in an overt way. There is no single perpetrator creating death camps, destroying cultural symbols and sites in the name of some form of purity. This could be called the ‘banality of genocide’. That is there is no single perpetrator, no monstrous ‘other’. This is genocide by a thousand cuts, this is not just a simple metaphor. It was borne out of colonialism with its inherent racism and profiteering which has been reproduced by governments over time. With the ever-increasing move to neoliberal politics this has created the space for other actors to exploit the continuing destruction of the indigenous population to meet their own wants. It can be argued that the neoliberal project is harmful to all vulnerable and disempowered populations. Any concentration on the meritocratic path holds an expectation for the individual to improve their position within the social structure. If however, you are denied the means to achieve this, it can only lead to aspirational failure, despair, and frustration. In the case of the indigenous population this is particularly toxic. With the ongoing destruction of their culture, they become a people with no ‘roots’ or ‘culture’ within what is their own country. In effect a diaspora within their own country.
Genocidal acts against the indigenous population began with colonisation: both physical and cultural. They lost all rights to their land when it was declared ‘Terra Nullis’, as this legitimised the seizure of the land. The indigenous population was decimated by diseases brought in by the colonisers, to which they had no natural immunity. Also, there were deliberate acts of slaughter. These state-sanctioned massacres were not just committed in the early years of colonisation but continued up to the late1920’s.
It was not until 1967 that the Australian government recognised the indigenous population as individualised people. However, even with this recognition it has not eliminated the discrimination, inequality and other harms being perpetrated.
Examples of these harms are 3.1 percent of the Australian population is indigenous, however, 19.3 percent live in poverty compared to 12.4 percent of other Australians. Approximately 20 percent living in non-rural areas live in overcrowded accommodation. The combination of poor housing and poverty impacts on health and mortality outcomes which are also poorer and higher than other Australians. Youth suicide between the ages of five and seventeen is five times higher than non-indigenous people. There is an overrepresentation in the Australian Child Protection system of indigenous children. It is argued that this system supports thousands of jobs from various professions. For example, lawyers, social workers, medical professionals and psychologists, these groups benefit financially from ‘indigenous disadvantage’ A causal reason for this overrepresentation is poverty and systemic racism. It has been likened to a second ‘stolen generation’.
The indigenous population is also heavily overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Indigenous people are 12.5 times more likely to be in prison as opposed to non-indigenous people. Indigenous females are 21.2 times more likely to be in prison than non-indigenous women. This imprisonment rate is also higher than the rate for non-indigenous men. This overrepresentation has been recognised as symptomatic of the historical and current harms to this population. This also applies to the higher death rate in custody.
The harms perpetrated on the indigenous population, colonisation, post-colonial actions, institutional racism, and an increasing turn to neoliberal politics, is a toxic mix. By its nature neoliberal politics opens the ‘space’ for the private sector to run roughshod over the weak and vulnerable. The belief that it is the responsibility of individuals – not the state – to improve lives, becomes a potential breeding ground for the perpetuation and increase of racism in the wider public. The overrepresentation of the indigenous population in the justice and ‘social care’ system and entrenched racism has led to a misrecognition. The indigenous people are viewed as the architects of their own plight. They are viewed as a criminal ‘other’ and not worthy of help and protection.
On January 26th, each year, the Australian nation celebrate ‘Australia Day’. This marks the raising of the union flag in 1788, some two hundred and thirty-three years ago, beginning the colonisation of Australia. For the indigenous population it is not a day of celebration but a day of mourning. A visceral reminder of the divisiveness, harms and abuses perpetrated upon them historically and continuing in the present. These harms will continue until those in positions of power move away from tokenism and introduce and strengthen equal and human rights and the protection of indigenous lands.
The article will conclude back in the rock shelters at Juukan gorge, more than seven thousand archaeological artifacts were discovered. One of these was a fragment of a belt made from plaited human hair. After scientific analysis it was found to be four thousand years old. The DNA results revealed that the owner of the hair was a direct descendant of the PKKP indigenous people still inhabiting this region today.
Andy Diaper, Independent Researcher.
Author image courtesy of Melissa Diaper.
Cave art image copyright free.