Mining firm BHP halts plan to disturb Aboriginal sites after outcry

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Protesters are seen during a rally outside the Rio Tinto office in PerthImage source, EPA
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The move comes days after another mining company sparked anger by destroying ancient caves

The mining giant BHP has halted plans to expand a mine in Western Australia because of concerns it could destroy dozens of indigenous heritage sites.

It follows a public outcry over the destruction of a 46,000-year-old site by another firm, Rio Tinto, last month.

BHP had been granted approval to work on up to 40 sites in the remote Pilbara region as part of its expansion of an iron ore mine.

But on Thursday, it said it would consult further with Aboriginal groups.

"We will not disturb the sites identified without further extensive consultation with the Banjima people," a statement said.

"That consultation will be based on our commitment to understanding the cultural significance of the region," it added. "This will include further scientific study and discussion on mitigation and preservation."

It is not clear how the delay will affect the development of the AUD$3.6bn (USD$2.5bn; £2bn) South Flank mine, which is near the town of Newman.

It is due to start producing iron ore next year, local media report.

Earlier this week, Western Australia's Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said he had approved BHP's application to "impact" 40 heritage sites in the iron-ore rich region.

"No objections were filed and I approved the notice on 29 May," he said in a statement.

Mr Wyatt, who is Aboriginal, added that the area covered by the application was subject to a 2015 land use agreement that limited the Banjima people's ability to contest government approval, but promised co-operation from the mining company.

The chairman of the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, Maitland Parker, said in a statement: "As a matter of lore and culture... the Banjima people do not support the destruction of sites of cultural significance."

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The Juukan Gorge caves, in the Pilbara region, were destroyed last month

The decision to halt the expansion of the mine comes shortly after Rio Tinto destroyed two indigenous caves in the Juukan Gorge, about 1,075 km (667 miles) north of Perth.

The company later apologised for blowing up the caves, which date back to the last Ice Age, saying it was "sorry for the distress we have caused".

"We are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area," it said in a statement.

Many prehistoric artefacts have been found at the remote heritage site.

The destruction of the caves sparked protests and calls for urgent reform of heritage protection laws in Western Australia.