SYDNEY (AFP).- An Australian mining firm was convicted Friday of desecrating a sacred outback Aboriginal site in the first ruling of its kind aimed at protecting one of the world's oldest surviving cultures.
OM (Manganese) Limited, an Australian subsidiary of Singapore-based OM Holdings Limited, was fined Aus$150,000 (US$133,600) for damaging the spiritual significance of an Aboriginal rock site at Bootu Creek, north of remote Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory.
OM Manganese had previously been convicted of physically damaging the site when an outcrop known as the Horse's Head was dislodged due to nearby blasting activities in 2011.
It triggered a rockslide at the spot, known in English as "Two Women Sitting Down", that saw some 17,000 cubic metres of ore, soil and vegetation collapse into the mine pit -- effectively wiping out one half of the site, which had a cultural history stretching back thousands of years.
In a historic ruling, Darwin magistrate Sue Oliver on Friday ruled that the damage amounted to desecration and fined OM, in the first successful prosecution under Australia's sacred sites laws.
"The defendant company made decisions that involved the sacred site that favoured business and profit over the (cultural protection) obligations they had," said Oliver, accusing OM of "wilful blindness" to the potential for damage.
The local Kunapa people said the site's destruction had forever disrupted their relationship with the land and its mythology or "dreaming".
"It will always remain a sacred site to us, but it has been ruined and we don't know what to do," said Kunapa representative Gina Smith of the site, which had been "there for thousands of years as part of our culture and our story".
"It's been significantly changed, which makes it much harder for Aboriginal people to recognise the dreaming," she added.
"We're not likely to use it any more."
According to the Kunapa, two female creation ancestors named Bilgara and Kaladaku -- a marsupial rat and bandicoot -- fought over bush tucker, or native food, at the Bootu Creek site and their blood spilled over the rocks, turning them the rich red of manganese ore.
The Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority, the statutory body responsible for overseeing sacred sites in the Northern Territory that brought the case against OM Manganese, welcomed the "historic" ruling.
"When a sacred site is desecrated or damaged it tears the social fabric of the affected community, as the harmony of those people is inherently linked to that sacred site," said the authority's chief Ben Scambary.
"Sacred sites are important to all Australians as most of this nation's cultural integrity, historical significance and tourism appeal comes from the 50,000 years that Aboriginal people have been caring for their country, their seas and their sacred sites."
OM Holdings said it had contested the desecration charge on the basis that the damage was unintentional, but it accepted Oliver's ruling.
"The company never intended to harm, damage or disrespect the sacred site. We sincerely regret the damage and the hurt caused and I unreservedly apologise to the site's custodians and traditional owners," OM chief executive Peter Toth said in a statement to the Australian stock exchange.
Aborigines, the most disadvantaged Australians, are believed to have numbered around one million at the time of British settlement in 1788. There are now just 470,000 out of a total population of 23 million.
Theirs is one of the world's oldest continuous cultures, with genetic studies showing Aboriginal Australians are descended from the first people to leave Africa up to 75,000 years ago and rock art dating back tens of thousands of years.
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