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Mining Giant BHP Pauses Plans to Blast 40 Aboriginal Heritage Sites

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Mining Giant BHP Pauses Plans to Blast 40 Aboriginal Heritage Sites
BHP Billiton's iron ore plant with excavators and stockpiles of iron ore in Western Australia. John W Banagan / Stone / Getty Images

Anglo-Australian mining company BHP said it would pause plans to destroy 40 Aboriginal heritage sites as part of its expansion of an iron ore mine in Western Australia (WA).



The plans were first revealed by The Guardian Australia Wednesday and come on the heels of the controversial destruction by rival mining company Rio Tinto of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.

The traditional owners of the 40 sites are the Banjima people, who wrote in December that they would "suffer spiritual and physical harm if they are destroyed," The Guardian reported.

"[We are] worried about the cumulative impact of so many sites being the subject of a single notice for destruction and that not one of the sites is deemed worthy of protection in situ by BHP," the Indigenous title holders wrote.

BHP won approval to destroy the sites from WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt on May 29, days after the blasting of the Juukan Gorge sites, Australia's ABC News reported.

At least 40, and as many as 86 sites, were identified in BHP's application to expand its $4.5 billion South Flank iron ore mine in Pilbara, WA, according to The Guardian.

An archeological survey conducted by the company revealed rock shelters between 10,000 and 15,000 years old and evidence of human presence in the area dating back approximately 40,000 years. The documents revealed by The Guardian also show the company was aware of Aboriginal opposition to the sites' destruction.

The company wrote it had "taken into account the views and recommendations provided by the Banjima representatives during the consultation and inspection," but it was "not reasonably practicable for BHP to avoid the eighty-six (86) potential archaeological sites."

While the Banjima people wanted the sites preserved, section 18 of the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act prevented them from formally registering their opposition because they had already signed an agreement with BHP to support the mine in exchange for financial and other benefits.

After the news broke, BHP first said Wednesday it had a good working relationship with the Banjima, but made no mention of changing its plans, The Sydney Morning Herald reported. Then, on Thursday, it said it would pause the destruction of the sites.

"We will not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation with the Banjima people," BHP said in a statement reported by ABC News. "That consultation will be based on our commitment to understanding the cultural significance of the region and on the deep respect we have for the Banjima people and their heritage. This will include further scientific study and discussion on mitigation and preservation."

In response, the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation published a statement saying they "do not support the destruction of sites of cultural significance," as ABC News reported.

"We stand with all Aboriginal traditional owners and particularly our Pilbara brothers and sisters, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura, at this time in our abhorrence at the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters, and those suffering the threat of or having recently experienced similar site destruction," the statement said.

The actual destruction by Rio Tinto and the destruction threatened by BHP have focused attention on the need to reform the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act to give Aboriginal groups more control over their heritage sites.

WA Senator Pat Dodson told The Guardian Thursday that there should be a freeze on section 18 approvals until the law was updated.

"I think this should be an absolute moratorium," Dodson said.

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Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

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The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

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