An Australian parliamentary committee investigating Rio Tinto’s blasting of a highly significant ancient rock shelter in the state of Western Australia released a scathing interim report Wednesday, describing “a ‘don’t care culture’ that infected Rio Tinto from the top down” and a “completely inadequate” legislative framework for Indigenous heritage protection.
Juurkan Gorge, in Western Australias Pilbara region, was destroyed earlier this year by Rio Tinto in an iron ore mine expansion project. The project was pursued on the basis that it would provide the company with access to an additional $134m of higher-grade iron ore.
The site was sacred to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) and contained artifacts that evidenced their occupation of the caves up to 46,000 years ago. Archaeologists believed this to be one of the longest continuous human occupations of a particular site, which had the potential to “radically change our understanding of the earliest human behaviour in Australia”.
“Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway,” the report concluded.
The committee was provided with evidence that there were at least four options for expansion that Rio Tinto could have taken that would not have damaged the site. These options, it heard, were not provided to the PKKP at any stage, and the PKKP were only notified of the decision to destroy the site after explosives had been laid. At this stage, the explosives could not be removed safely, Rio Tinto claimed, after repeated urgent requests to delay the blasts from the PKKP.
Senator Pat Dobson, a member of the committee panel, labelled the actions of Rio Tinto as “incremental genocide”.
“Because what you do is you destroy the evidentiary base of the traditional owners whose lands these companies are operating upon, you remove any heritage, any evidence of their occupation, any evidence of their story, song, dance or their location and say, there’s nothing here, you don’t belong here because it’s all destroyed”, he said.
The report also criticised the use of “gag clauses” in mining agreements between big corporations and Traditional Owners. These clauses prevented objections to developments under state and federal law. The committee heard that this forced Traditional Owners to cede their rights to challenge and give informed consent to mining proposals. The interim report concluded that all current agreements between mining companies and Traditional Owners should be amended to exclude such clauses.
Among its other recommendations, the interim report submitted that a moratorium on mining in the Juurkan Gorge area be entered into, as well as a moratorium on the 1700 Indigenous heritage sits that Rio Tinto currently has approval to destroy. An urgent overhaul of Western Australian and Federal laws governing mining approvals in significant heritage areas was also ordered.
Notably, the report also recommended that a restitution package be provided by Rio Tinto to the PKKP. This included all possible remediations of the site being undertaken and compensation being paid.
Despite Rio Tinto experiencing profound reputational damage following its Juurkan Gorge failures, uncertainties remain over whether a new precedent for government and corporate engagement with Traditional Owners will be set. On Thursday, in response to the recommendations, the Western Australian government said it would not commit to ceasing approvals of mining Indigenous heritage sites on the basis that it is “not a practical solution”. The committee also noted that Fortescue Metals Group, another prominent mining corporation in the Pilbara region, had recently received approval to conduct expansions close to the Juurkan Gorge site.
The committee is expected to provide further recommendations in its final report due next year.
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