Australia Indigenous leaders appalled after being granted access to Illawarra's Whale Cave for first time in decades

02:15  02 october  2020
02:15  02 october  2020 Source:   msn.com

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a man standing next to a stone wall: Jade Kennedy (left) hadn't seen Whale Cave since he was a child. Paul Knight had never been to the site. Both were shocked by what they saw. (ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez) © Provided by ABC Business Jade Kennedy (left) hadn't seen Whale Cave since he was a child. Paul Knight had never been to the site. Both were shocked by what they saw. (ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez)

The locked gates protecting Sydney's water catchment are helping conceal the legacy of mining damage to Aboriginal cultural heritage sites along the Illawarra escarpment.

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About 10 kilometres from Wollongong, nestled in subtropical rainforest near Cordeaux Dam is Whale Cave, which contains more than 200 ochre and charcoal drawings, including portrayals of a large whale and emus.

Special permission is needed to enter the catchment and last month members of the Illawarra Local Aboriginal Land Council were granted access for the first time in decades.

Land council chairman Jade Kennedy had not visited the site since he was a child.

"We have physically got gates and we have bureaucracy that continues to lock us out and remove us from the opportunity to be connecting with our stories," Mr Kennedy said.

"It is not even like sitting at the side of your grandmother when she is dying — it is sitting in a cell next to your grandfather while they torture him.

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"What are we doing?

"This is very heartbreaking and difficult to see — it looks very different than when I was a kid."

6,000 years old, but no protection

The art is believed to date back some 6,000 years and some of the pictures represent connections to significant creation stories.

"They are not just drawings, this is all of our history, this is the country we are sharing, and this is its story, how it was created and how it come to be and for some reason we are trying to make it so that it can't be seen," Mr Kennedy said.

"This desecration and the impacts that we can physically see on this cave are a display of what is happening to us as a people."

The sandstone cave was damaged in about 1979 when Nebo Colliery was using the bord-and-pillar mining method.

It was owned by BHP Billiton subsidiary Illawarra Coal at the time.

In 2006 the land manager, WaterNSW, installed mesh and steel supports and used treated pine pit props to help stop the cave ceiling from collapsing.

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Now, new rockfalls at the back of the cave are continuing to destroy the art.

But despite its cultural importance, the site is not listed as an Aboriginal Place under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, nor as part of the State Heritage Register listing.

Its sole listing is with Heritage NSW's Aboriginal Heritage Information Management System.

Because of the restrictions placed on access to the area, little is known about the area's other cultural sites, but it is believed there could be as many as 4,000 across the escarpment.

Fresh and extended damage

Reports obtained by the ABC reveal the recent destruction of another cultural site from subsidence caused by new longwall mines operated by South32.

The company took control of the Dendrobium Mine after a demerger by BHP Billiton.

Upon being granted access to the site for the first time, the land council inspected an area above longwalls 14 and 15.

They saw a shallow sandstone overhang with charcoal drawings of eels damaged by vertical and diagonal cracking, fallen rock, and water infiltration of the rock shelf.

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Council chief executive Paul Knight, a frequent recipient of Aboriginal heritage reports from mining companies in the region, was shocked by the level of damage.

"Not being allowed into this area and coming in for the first time and seeing the destruction, part of me is still trying to work out how to deal with that," he said.

"Visiting the site, you realise this is real — not just the photos we see in reports, little 20-millimetre by 20-millimetre photos.

"Yeah, OK — they show damage has occurred, but it does not accurately reflect the scale of what is being lost.

"It makes you think about what happened here, what were the things that brought the community here to draw a whale so far inland, or an eel.

"What is that connection? What is it all about?

"Because we have been excluded from this area for so long a lot of that knowledge is lost."

'Left to the company's moral compass'

In a statement, South32 acknowledged damage to two sites:

"We are actively engaging with traditional owners, registered Aboriginal parties and government in respect of how cultural heritage management processes can be improved in the future in Australia," the miner said.

Jason Economidis, the chief operating officer for South32's Australian operations, said in a statement that the company began an internal review in June of its approach to cultural heritage management to determine "where we may need to strengthen or enhance our systems".

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"It is important for cultural heritage and mining to co-exist in Australia and we are committed to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the government and industry to find a new way forward," he said.

Under the planning system there are no repercussions for the damage, South32 is only required to continue monitoring.

Mr Knight said while destruction of culture was allowed through the mining licence approved by the NSW Government, it raised questions about the company's moral obligations.

"When their only responsibility is to report and monitor and not think about what we have to repair, correct or even avoid, it leaves it to the company's moral compass," he said.

'A low-key Juukan Gorge'

Mr Knight said the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia's Pilbara region highlighted what had been happening on the escarpment for decades.

"We have had the same thing here and people ignore it," he said.

"We have been calling for years to stop this damage to our sites and everyone just keeps ignoring it.

"It's been happening here way before Rio Tinto created the damage to the site over there in Western Australia.

"It's been brought to attention because it is a very significant action that has created this, rather than the low-key stuff that is created by mining subsidence.

"Once the damage is done, you can't change that — it is gone."

Mr Knight said the situation was the result of a flawed planning system.

"The reality is they are not really assessing to prevent damage," he said.

"They are assessing to get their approval through, not: 'How do we recognise and support and protect the Aboriginal cultural heritage?'"

Under the existing regime, the NSW Government allows proponents of State Significant Infrastructure like mines or major housing developments to set aside the heritage protection laws.

A catalyst for change

Paul Wand, a former Aboriginal relations executive at Rio Tinto now based in Wollongong, said the destruction of the 46,000-year-old sacred site in WA should prompt planning policy reform.

"Juukan should ensure that Aboriginal people are at the table on any deliberations for mining expansion along under the escarpment and to our west," he said.

"The legislation is weak and, in light of Juukan, the laws certainly need to be strengthened.

"Compensation has never been discussed.

"It should be discussed as part of the overall package, but the important thing is that their knowledge be included in any protected mine development."

The NSW Government has been contacted for comment.

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