BHP strikes heritage deal ahead of annual meeting

The South Flank project, set to be one of the world’s largest iron ore hubs, would impact sites sacred to the Banjima people. (Image courtesy of BHP.)

BHP (ASX, LON, NYSE: BHP) has struck an eleventh hour deal with a coalition of Aboriginal land councils as shareholders pushing for a halt of all mining on sacred Indigenous sites were gearing up to vote on the matter at Wednesday’s annual general meeting.

The move follows increased pressure on miners to protect cultural landmarks after Rio Tinto (ASX, LON: RIO) blasted a 46,000-year-old sacred site in Western Australia to expand an iron ore mine.

Shareholders would have voted on a resolution seeking a moratorium on mining activities that could “disturb, destroy or desecrate” culturally significant Indigenous sites

The agreement with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, a group of 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island land councils formed after Rio’s criticized decision, seeks to identify areas where BHP and traditional owners can work together to improve standards and practices on cultural heritage.

The world’s No. 1 miner said it would to support changes to state and federal laws in Australia to make sure traditional owners give “free, prior and informed consent” before striking deals with mining companies.

It has also agreed to set up places to keep artifacts taken from heritage sites.

The president of BHP’s Australian minerals division, Edgar Basto, said he acknowledged the trust traditional owners and the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance have put in the company.

“I look forward to our continuing partnership to deliver the commitments we have made together and our shared objectives for mutual benefit,” he said in the statement.

Chairman intervention

The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), which wanted BHP to “immediately” halt activities that could “disturb, destroy or desecrate” Aboriginal heritage sites, said it would withdraw its proposed related resolution from Wednesday’s general meeting.

ACCR executive director Brynn O’Brien said the agreement was struck only “at the 11th hour” after BHP chairman, Ken MacKenzie, became directly involved in negotiations with Aboriginal leadership.

BHP is currently reviewing expansion plans for its South Flank iron ore project in Western Australia, which would have destroyed dozens of Aboriginal sites.

It has also clarified that Aboriginal owners are free to comment on the management of their cultural heritage, and is reviewing clauses around consent in its agreements.

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