The Kunapa people have lost one of their sacred sites forever, but the company that destroyed it is the first time a charge of desecration has been contested and won in Australia.
The site, known in English as Two Women Sitting Down, is at Bootu Creek, about 105 miles north of Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
It was destroyed in 2011 when OM Manganese, a subsidiary of OM Holdings, was blasting near the site and it collapsed. The traditional owners of the site fought the company in court for two years, though the owners feel the result doesn’t compare to the loss of the site.
“The decision does not relieve the anguish of the custodians who have been left an enduring legacy of a devastated sacred site,” Ben Scambary, chief executive of the Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, told reporters after the decision was handed down from the Darwin Magistrates Court August 2.
The court determined that the company was indeed blasting and mining too close to the site and that the company knew the risks it was taking but continued mining.
“We never had any intention to cause damage or disrespect or hurt throughout the mining process and I would like to personally, unreservedly and sincerely apologise to the traditional owners,” Peter Toth, chief executive of OM Holdings, told ABC Australia. Though Toth apologized, the company estimated it spent about $1 million fighting the desecration charges in court.
No matter the outcome, a sacred site is gone forever. Traditional owner and Kunapa representative Gina Smith told the Australian Associated Press that the site related to a dreaming story about a marsupial rat and a bandicoot that fought over bush tucker. The site was also part of a dreaming songline, each site along the line is a station along the way.
“I can’t take our children there to teach them the law. There’s nothing there to see now,” Smith told reporters in Darwin.
The loss is seen not just by the traditional owners, but by the court as well.
“It’s not just a loss for traditional owners, but a genuine loss of heritage for the country as a whole,” Magistrate Sue Oliver said.
Some believe this fine wasn’t enough to send a message, as it was only a third of the maximum fine of $400,000 and some companies would rather pay the fines since the financial gain of destroying the sites could be greater for them.
“It’s not all about money,” Smith said. “We want to have something to show our kids, not just land ripped up.”
“It wouldn’t matter if it was $150,000 or $150 million. For Aboriginal people our sites are what connects us to each other and the land. It’s our spirituality that’s been damaged, it’s not just a physical site,” Dr. Jillian Marsh, of Flinders University, told the Bush Telegraph.