Destroyed Caves

One of the main processes in cave destruction is human activities. The growing awareness of the nonsense to destroy unique cultural values to produce a few tons of gravel for the road, has finally led to the introduction of the term Lost Caves. Intended to express the sadness of the process, this term is unfortunately absolutely unusable. This becomes apparent when you type it into Google and get hundreds of links to video games and reality TV sites. This term is already widely used in pop culture, and it is unfortunately mixed up with a popular computer game. And actually, those caves were not lost, we cannot find them if we just look hard enough. They were disintegrated, destroyed, there is a huge hole were they once were, or probably a waste dump. So we coined the term Destroyed Caves instead, and while we must say that it's not an official term, we hope it will become one.

An old type of cave destruction is vandalism. It's not destroying the cave, it's destroying some content. Mineral hunters and stupid visitors break off speleothems as souvenirs or to sell them. Kids paint grafitti across 20,000 years old cave paintings. People start a fire inside a cave, or throw rubbish into the cave, just to safe a few bucks for the normal disposal of waste. Or religious fanatics blast symbols of another religion. That's sad, but actually it is harmless, compared to the complete destruction of the cave.

The cave was ultimately destroyed with explosives along with another Aboriginal sacred site on 24 May 2020 as part of Rio Tinto's expansion of the Brockman 4 mine. This was despite the PKKP having said many times that they wanted to preserve the site and having issued an urgent request to halt the blasts five days beforehand. The Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) does not allow for mining consent to be renegotiated on the basis of new information, and the blasting was legal under a Section 18 exemption in the Act. WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt was as of August 2020 reviewing the Act.

The mechanism works always the same way:

  1. Someone wants to make business, generally mining, quarrying, or constructing a building, road, railroad or whatever. As a result, it is necessary to destroy some landscape, probably relocate a few people living there, and destroy anything which is located in the quarried rock. This includes caves, ancient mines, archaeological remains, and of course the underground drainage system.
  2. Any resistance is blocked by the arguments Jobs, Progress, and Permit. Permits are obtained because politicians are greedy.
  3. Laws and regulations are created and ignored by the entrepreneur.
  4. Penalties are imposed but not collected because this could cost jobs.
  5. If there is a major incident which makes it impossible to continue this mumbling, the operator goes bankrupt. Restoration requirements and outstanding fines can no longer be collected and are borne by the general public or taxpayers. The jobs are gone, as is the money that was earned from the operation.

We have a lot of environment protection laws now, and so the motorway cannot be built if there are a few endemic frogs, who would lose their habitat. Or there is a gothic dome of great historic value. But how about a cave with prehistoric paintings, and layers of archaeological evidence of the life of our ancestors? Or how about a cave with nice speleothems? It's time we protect such value as well as a few animals. The fact is that caves have been protected for 20 years if they are bat roosts. If not, you can dismantle them without any problems as long as you have a licence.

And Germany has a long history of such occurrences. The cave where the first Neanderthal was found was mined 150 years ago. The Neanderthal after which it was named no longer exists, it was completely quarried with rocks, caves, waterfalls and everything else, today there is only a large hole. The Neanderthal Museum stands in the middle of it, with a memorial stone on the forecourt. It says on it that this is the place where the Neanderthal man was found, but the cave was 20 metres higher up, where today there is only air. This is quite a striking example of this process.

But there is also a very cautious glimmer of light on the horizon. After the Rio Tinto company blew up some Aboriginal cave shrines in Australia, there was an outcry. There were even major international reports in well-known magazines. And although the blasting was theoretically legal, the company had a valid mining licence, they were accused of rigorously destroying sacred sites. Australia is more advanced in this respect than other former colonies, and in many cases, large areas of land have been returned to the indigenous people. In this case, however, the international outrage was so massive that Rio Tinto paid generous compensation, several high-ranking managers had to resign, bonuses were cancelled and much more. The law in Australia was also massively tightened. But let's not kid ourselves, if it had just been about a world-famous archaeological site or spectacular cave minerals, no one would have cared.