Juukan Gorge inquiry: Rio Tinto’s decision to blow up Indigenous rock shelters ‘inexcusable’ | Indigenous Australians

A parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves has delivered a scathing report criticising the actions of Rio Tinto and calling for the Western Australian government to put a stop to the destruction of heritage until new laws are passed.

The majority bipartisan interim report said Rio Tinto’s decision to destroy two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge, against the wishes of the traditional owners and despite knowing the archeological value of the site, was “inexcusable”.

“Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway,” the report said.

The report recommended a moratorium on the approval of all new section 18 approvals under the Aboriginal Heritage Act until new laws are passed next year – unless it can be “established and verified that there is current free, prior and informed consent obtained from Traditional Owners”. That could potentially impact public infrastructure development, not just mining.

It also called for mining companies to introduce a voluntary moratorium on acting on existing approvals, under section 18 of the Western Australian legislation, to destroy sites.

“How many Juukan Gorge catastrophies are lurking on working schedules around the country? We don’t know because there are still existing legal regimes that permit various companies to destroy them,” Senator Pat Dodson told the Senate after the interim report was tabled on Thursday.

“Whilst our report is called Never Again, it’s in a legislative environment where there’s still capacity for an organisation or a company to destroy such a site. So we have a serious problem.”

The report recommended the Australian government outlaw the use of gag clauses in agreements between mining companies and traditional owners, which prevent traditional owners from speaking publicly against the destruction of their heritage.

It also recommended that:

  • Rio Tinto must negotiate a restitution package with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) and ensure a full reconstruction of the rock shelters and remediation of the site, at its own expense;

  • Rio must commit to a permanent moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area

  • All mining companies, including Rio Tinto, should undertake an independent review of all agreements with traditional owners and remove any gag clauses or restrictions in existing agreements;

  • All mining companies should commit to a voluntary moratorium on applying for new section 18 permissions until new Aboriginal heritage laws are passed;

  • Rio Tinto should commit to a stay on actions on the 1,700 Aboriginal heritage sites which it currently has permission to destroy;

  • The WA government should urgently establish new procedures to improve the regulation of Aboriginal heritage and undertake a mapping and truth-telling process to record all sites that have been destroyed or damaged;

  • The federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 be “urgently” reviewed, and responsibility for the legislation revert to the minister for Aboriginal affairs.

The PKKP people said they were “devastated” by destruction of the two rockshelters, one of which had been described by an archaeologist paid for by Rio Tinto as one of the most significant archaeological sites in Australia.

The PKKP Aboriginal corporation chief executive, Carol Meredith, told the inquiry in October that they felt they were “up against a huge machine”.

“[The agreement] may have been the gold standard when it was signed, but its flaws are very apparent,” she said. “It wasn’t an equal partnership then and it isn’t now.”

The inquiry was called in June, three weeks after Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site.

Rio Tinto’s global CEO, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, and its Perth-based chief executive of iron ore, Chris Salisbury, both appeared before the inquiry before resigning over the issue in September. They both appeared again alongside the head of corporate affairs, Simone Niven, who also resigned, in October.

All three had previously lost their annual bonuses following an internal review that blamed the destruction on “shortfalls in linked-up decision making”, but will keep their long-term bonuses on exit from the company. The internal review has been criticised as “inadequate” and lacking transparency.

Senior executives from BHP, Roy Hill, Woodside and Fortescue Metals were also called before the public hearings. All defended their own relationship with traditional owners. But Aboriginal corporations in the Pilbara said that the issues outlined in the destruction of Juukan Gorge were widespread. They include agreements with gag clauses that prevent traditional owners from speaking out against mining companies, and a heritage system that is geared towards mining companies and does not allow for review once more information about a site is discovered.

At the first hearing, Jacques said Rio had decided to destroy the site – which it had permission to do under Western Australia’s Aboriginal heritage laws – in order to access an additional 8m tonnes of high-grade iron ore, worth about $135m. The company did not tell the PKKP that they had considered other options for the mine that would have avoided destroying the site.

Rio has since placed a moratorium on work in the area – meaning it now has less access to the available iron ore than if it had avoided the site.

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