The Damage Done: The State as a Facilitator of Corporate Appropriation and Destruction of Indigenous Sites in the Pilbara Region

From the Series: The Pilbara Crisis: Resource Frontiers in Western Australia

Photo by David Caloren, licensed under CC BY NC.

When iron ore prices began edging up above $20 a ton in late 2003, the Pilbara region of Western Australia was producing around 220 million tons of the commodity, which was sold for a mere $4 billion. An eightfold price increase over the past decade has spurred a spectacular surge in production to more than 800 million tons this fiscal year. Notwithstanding the more recent drop in prices, this output is forecast to earn the nation’s local and multinational producers more than $40 billion in income (Witteveen 2015, 38). About 97 percent of Australia’s iron ore production is sourced from the Pilbara region, and the commodity is now by far the country’s single biggest source of export revenue.

The astonishing rise of iron ore production has transformed Australia’s political and physical landscape and has also reshaped the way many Aborigines view the impact of mining on their traditional lands. The price of iron ore and the revenue generated by this industry now feature almost daily in discussion of the national economy. Iron ore producers wield considerable power; BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, along with the Swiss coal producer Xstrata, helped to bring down Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in June 2010 in response to his proposed resource super-profits tax. One week after Rudd’s demise, Rio Tinto chief executive Tom Albanese (2010) issued a blunt warning to political leaders in other resource-rich nations when he told London conferencegoers that “policymakers around the world can learn a lesson when considering a new tax to plug a revenue gap, or play to local politics.”

The revenue and profits generated by this industry are only half of the story. The nearly fourfold increase in the volume of production, underpinned by the expansion of existing operations and the development of new ones, has had a profound impact on the ground in the Pilbara. In part, this expansion has been facilitated by the close cooperation between mining giants and Aboriginal communities through royalty and other benefit agreements. These companies have strongly emphasized their employment of Aborigines from impoverished communities in Pilbara, although many of their Aboriginal workers fly in from major cities.

As I argued in my book Mine-Field (Cleary 2012), this accumulation of “black capital” has helped to facilitate development. But as the recent slide in iron ore prices has shown, relying on mining jobs, as advocated by some Indigenous commentators, can be a risky strategy. Given the rise in production, it is manifestly clear that the expansion of mining has not been greatly inhibited by state and federal regulations, despite complaints from industry that this is the case. Even after the advent of state laws that regulate the impact of development on Indigenous heritage, the Pilbara region remains a fast-evolving resource frontier that very much resembles what Anna Tsing (2003, 5100) has described as an inert landscape “ready to be dismembered and packaged for export.” Watching the 200-wagon iron ore trains passing every half hour, it is evident that this frontier has been conquered by infrastructure rolled out over a vast area on an industrial scale.

Governments have also facilitated this conquest. In 1972, the Western Australian state government introduced the Aboriginal Heritage Act (AHA). While the act was ostensibly designed to protect the ancient remnants of Indigenous settlement in the state, it also allowed for the destruction of these sites by developers. As David Ritter (2003, 206) has said, under the AHA the government “appropriates Indigenous knowledge in exchange for limited beneficial treatment that exhibits the appearance of Indigenous autonomy.” Thus, he argues that the law is a form of colonization. In the forty-two-year history of the act, there have been few successful prosecutions for damage to sites and a vast number of development applications have been approved, resulting in the destruction of these sites.

While multinational corporations led the way on taxation, homegrown producers and explorers have been lobbying aggressively for a more liberal heritage regime; in the interim, they have been finding creative ways to get around the law. These emerging players, most famously Fortescue Metals, have been opening up new mines in recent years, while the multinationals have relied on expanding existing mines. As of July 2014, the status of 2,500 sites has been changed from “registered” to “stored data,” which effectively strips them of legal protection. More than 80 percent of the affected sites lie in the iron ore–mining region of the Pilbara, and more than half of those, or 817 sites, are in the vicinity of mines developed by Fortescue and billionaire heiress Gina Rinehart (Laurie 2014).

Companies have been able to expedite development because decisions about the hiring and firing of consultants are in the hands of the company executives, who are able to choose the consultants that will best facilitate the approval of their projects. From 2011–12, Fortescue was investigated (but never prosecuted) by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs (DAA) for the destruction of two sites and damage to a third at a mine located within the claim area and registered by the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation. This company has also given substantial funding to a breakaway Indigenous group to expedite heritage clearances.

The destruction of these sites came after Fortescue dismissed two heritage firms less favorable to its aims and engaged a new firm, Melbourne-based Alpha Archaeology. The new firm’s archaeologists declassified about 30 percent of the sites previously identified as part of a rare find. The DAA sought advice from the State Solicitor’s Office for possible prosecution of the company executives, but it was later advised that there was insufficient evidence to do so.

Despite the advantages of the current system, local companies have been at the forefront of pushing for more liberal heritage protection laws. The biggest proposed change to the law involves removing the pivotal role of the Aboriginal Cultural Materials Committee, which reviews applications by companies to develop protected sites. Instead, the chief executive of the DAA will now grant these approvals. The amendments have angered Indigenous groups across the state and led to protests outside Parliament House in Perth. In a speech at the third annual Indigenous Business, Enterprise, and Corporations Conference, Labor’s Indigenous Affairs spokesman Ben Wyatt (2014) said that the amendments mean the Aboriginal voice will be almost completely absent from the process, arguing that “there is no recognition of ownership of heritage, no recognition of native title, no recognition of anything beyond the over-riding control and decision making of the CEO of the Department for Aboriginal Affairs. Aboriginal people never expected to be given some over-riding power over industry, the statistics speak for themselves, but we did expect, at the very least, the right to be spoken to. Consulted, engaged, informed.” Wyatt also points out that the changes could mean that a mining company could apply to develop a site as significant as Uluru without consulting Aboriginal people. Opposition to the Bill appears to have stalled its passage through the Parliament, for now.


Albanese, Tom. 2010. “Mining Issues, A Global View.” Presentation at Melbourne Mining Club, July 8.

Cleary, Paul. 2012. Mine-Field: The Dark Side of Australia's Resources Rush. Melbourne: Black Inc.

Laurie, Victoria. 2014. “Ancient Aboriginal Sites at Risk in the Pilbara.” The Australian, September 25.

Ritter, David. 2003. “Trashing Heritage: Dilemmas of Rights and Power in the Operation of Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Legislation.” Studies in Western Australian History 23: 195–208.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2003. “Natural Resources and Capitalists Frontiers.” Economic and Political Weekly 38, no. 48: 5100–106.

Witteveen, Ben. 2015. “Iron Ore.” Resources and Energy Quarterly, September. Australia Department of Industry, Innovation, and Science.

Wyatt, Ben. 2014. “Government, Legacy and Opportunity: Speech to IBECC Conference 2014.” December 1.