By Carlo Sands.

When mining giant Rio Tinto blew up two sacred Indigenous sites dating back 46,000 years in the Pilbara in Australia’s north-west earlier this year, it was with the consent of the state Labor government. 

It shows that while the Western Australian (WA) Labor Party sometimes pays formal respects to Welcome to Country ceremonies, it believes the “traditional owners” of the land are multi-billion dollar multinationals.

For its part, Rio Tinto apologised “for the distress” caused. Not for doing it, a secret recording of their boss made clear, but they are super sorry about the distress. Maybe Rio Tinto’s management are actually all Empaths and the huge bursts of distress from the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples was really throwing their auras off balance and making their morning yoga hard.

Claims by Rio Tinto it didn’t know the profound importance of the rock shelters – which showed 46,000 years of continual occupation – don’t hold up when you realise they featured in a 2015 documentary of the area that the company funded.

The sacred Aboriginal site after it was destroyed by Rio Tinto’s explosives.

Possibly no-one at the company watched their own film, but I really think Rio Tinto missed a trick. There should have been billboards everywhere touting the “soon to be last-seen footage of the most significant cultural site on Planet Earth!” Ticket sales would have been through the roof.

When you try, and fail, to grasp the sheer scale of the loss this destruction represents, you come to appreciate just how good Rio Tinto are at cultural destruction. This is top-shelf stuff that puts the Taliban and ISIS to shame. In terms of destroying things of incalculable value, Rio Tinto are Liverpool FC to the Taliban’s Southend United.

And it’s no one-off.  Ahead of Rio Tinto’s destruction, fellow mining giant BHP was set to destroy 40 Indigenous heritage sites in the Pilbara. Permission for this devastation, you’ll be shocked to hear if you missed the start of the article, was granted by the WA government.

In fact, of 36 significant sites excavated in Eastern Guruma country over the past decade, 25 have already been wiped out. It puts the fate of some James Cook statues into perspective.

Oppression continues

It’s not just the past. More than 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since the 1991 royal commission on Black Deaths in Custody. The Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory, four years on from an exposé of its abuse of its young inmates, has 100 per cent Aboriginal inmates. Indigenous peoples are three per cent of the population, but almost one-third of the prison population. 

Anyway, have you heard about Colonial Brewing?

The craft beer produced by a small-scale brewery in WA will no longer be sold by an independent bottle store chain due to complaints about the offensive nature of the word “colonial”.

Between a craft beer name and corporate-caused cultural genocide, on which front of the “culture wars” do you think Australia’s right wing chose to fight? Yes, Australia’s conservatives warriors can’t shut up about the beer. 

Matt Canavan was Federal Minister for Resources and Northern Australia until earlier this year. As Rio Tinto’s atrocity was committed in pursuit of resources in northern Australia, you might think he’d have something to say. Luckily for Rio Tinto, Canavan has never seen a mining company he hasn’t thrown wads of cash at. 

Therefore, when Canavan went on morning TV the same day leaked recording revealed Rio Tinto was not sorry about its actions, he chose to drink a Colonial beer. He was very keen to strike a blow for freedom – be it the freedom to drink over-hopped brews or help destroy human civilisation in a coal-fuelled eco-holocaust.

There can be no doubt that Canavan, one of the mining giants’ bestest friends in a parliament full of them, was very happy to talk about the name of a beer no-one had heard of before, and not mining corporations’ cultural genocide. 

But it’s not just beer. Nestlé took time out from hoarding water and pushing dangerous baby milk formulas in the global South to announce it was changing the name of its “Red Skins” and “Chico” sweets sold in Australia. Seemingly unmoved by the very long list of Nestlé’s corporate crimes, this assault on sweets and lollies sent right-wingers to even greater heights of confected outrage.

The Right loves to shift debate onto these grounds to discredit the anti-racist cause as nothing but the niche concerns of inner-city ‘snowflake’ cultural warriors. For instance, a Murdoch-owned tabloid invented a fake controversy over a supposed campaign to rename the state of Victoria to attack Lidia Thorpe, the incoming Victorian Greens senator and GunnaiGunditjmara woman. 

Thorpe documented the set-up, calling out the paper for its invented story and accusing it of “creating a race war”. 

At the same time as an invented ‘threat’ to the state’s name, there is the very real threat in Victoria over freeway construction threatening sacred birthing trees of the Djab Wurrung people. A state’s name can change repeatedly, but once gone those sacred trees are gone forever.

Questions of power

There are questions here for those of us who believe in social justice, progress and not dying in a civilisation-destroying omnicide. How do we avoid getting manoeuvred onto the right’s favoured terrain?

It can be easy to find yourself focusing on smaller targets when the Left is weak, and that’s very true in Australia. Trade unions are at historic low points of membership and power, and social movements are at a low ebb. In such a context, it’s much easier to get a small-scale beer taken off some shelves than defeat giant mining corporations — with Rio Tinto suffering zero punishment for its destruction.

The stakes, though, are wildly different. One has power over the life of human civilisation and the other is a mediocre beer with a stupid pull-ring (don’t ask).

There are no shortcuts to rebuilding the social power needed to inflict serious blows on the real powers in the country, and the world – which is a shame as it’s quite urgent. 

But the Left has not always been this weak. In Australia in the last century, powerful social movements saved the Franklin River and much of Sydney’s heritage. Powerful trade unions joined forces with environmentalists, Aboriginal fighters, feminists and gay liberationists to win impressive battles. 

In seeking to remake a nation like Australia along truly anti-racist lines, symbols and names are undoubtedly important. What statues stand where, the names of places, even what words are acceptable in public life (Australia has a brand of cheese that shares a name with a horrific racist slur) do matter.

And if Nestlé reads the room and decides, guided by its profit motive as ever, to make a symbolic gesture towards anti-racism, that is a good sign for our side. This is not to support to the Harpers letter signed by dozens of famous, successful writers railing against being “silenced” by “cancel culture”, which was answered very well at In These Times.

But the significance of symbolic measures is tied to the extent it reflects move to end material oppression. There’s no point cancelling beer called “Colonial” if colonialism is still causing suffering and destruction.

In finding a way forward, there is leadership being provided by Aboriginal groups, such as Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance. We can support their struggles and help build movements that can cancel institutional racism and the corporate power it serves. 

Carlo Sands has been a long-time columnist for Green Left Weekly and is an editor of the satirical site The (un)Australian. Read his blog here.

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