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Mine approval laws allow ‘systematic erasure’ of Indigenous culture

The comments come amid rising concerns over the destruction of ancient Indigenous artefacts by mining giants. Earlier this month Rio Tinto was criticised for destroying 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Western Australia against the wishes of traditional owners, while there is growing discontent about a Chinese conglomerate China Shenhua Energy’s plans to mine a site in northern NSW that has upset Indigenous groups and farmers.

Currently the legal protection for Aboriginal artefacts and culturally significant land comes under a broad range of state and federal acts. In NSW, projects that are considered state significant – such as the China Shenhua mine – have a much lower bar for approval.

The National Parks and Wildlife Act allows the NSW government to force companies to develop strategies to protect Aboriginal artefacts but there is no avenue for traditional landowners to challenge these plans if they are not satisfied.

NSW shadow minister for Aboriginal affairs David Harris has been working to create a new bill to raise the bar for companies seeking mine approval by mandating thorough consultation with local Indigenous groups.

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“It’s really sad this has been recognised as a problem for over a decade and we don’t seem to be getting any closer to a solution,” Mr Harris said. “Companies can avoid scrutiny in terms of getting approvals because there really is no recognised system.”

The member for Wyong said in absence of tougher laws, the private sector needed to step up. “Across the board investors are starting to become a lot more socially conscious and they want their money invested in clean, green-type projects.”

“You can’t say on one day you support reconciliation and then on the other side be investing in projects that destroy that very concept”, he said. “We can’t just let the systematic erasure of their culture continue.”

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald revealed this week the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, and $54 billion super fund Cbus had stakes in China Shenhua Energy – the company behind the open-cut coal mine set to destroy around 4000 hectares of agricultural land, 800 hectares of koala habitat and over 60 culturally significant artefacts near Gunnedah.

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NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann called a motion in Parliament on Wednesday evening to reject China Shenhua’s application for a mining licence, set to be renewed at the end of this month, and to protect the Gomeroi people’s sacred sites and artefacts.

In the absence of adequate legislation, Ms Faehrmann said super funds and other investors needed to ramp up pressure on mining companies to protect First Nations peoples cultural sites.

“It’s not good enough that it’s taken the destruction of that incredible gorge by Rio Tinto to put this issue at the front and centre,” she said. “Businesses and super funds have to step up. It could be some time before we get significant legal reform in this area.”

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