Rio Tinto should pay for sacred caves blast — inquiry

Rio blew up the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Western Australia’s Pilbara region in 2020 to extract about 8 million tonnes of high-grade iron ore. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.)

An Australian parliamentary inquiry into Rio Tinto’s (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal site in May this year has urged the company to halt all mining activities in the area, undertake land rehabilitation and review all of its agreements with traditional owners.

The interim report, published on Wednesday, also concludes that land owners of the Juukan Gorge shelters were not sufficiently supported by the federal and Western Australian state governments, native title law or even their own lawyers.

The harshest parts of the document were reserved for Rio Tinto and its “inexcusable” role in what the inquiry describes as a “tragedy.”

“Never again can we allow the destruction, the devastation and the vandalism of cultural sites as has occurred with the Juukan Gorge — never again!”

Parliamentary Inquiry, Dec. 2020

“Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway. It pursued the option of destroying the shelters despite having options which would have preserved them,” the document reads.

“Never again can we allow the destruction, the devastation and the vandalism of cultural sites as has occurred with the Juukan Gorge — never again!”

The inquiry did not refer to what, if any, financial compensation Rio Tinto should pay to the traditional owners as part of a negotiated restitution package. It only said the agreement should include keeping intact places where artefacts and other material could be stored and displayed.

Rio Tinto reiterated its apology to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples (PKKP) in the Pilbara region, adding that such devastation should not have occurred.

“We recognize the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters caused significant pain to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and we are working very hard to progress a remedy with them,” chairman Simon Thompson said in a statement.

“We are committed to learning from this event [and] have made important changes to the way we manage cultural heritage sites and our relationships with Traditional Owners, including a commitment to modernize our agreements.”

The world’s second-largest miner had already issued a public apology and three senior executives, including top boss Jean-Sébastien Jacques, left Rio Tinto due to the incident.

Archaic” legislation

The destruction of the caves was technically legal, as Rio Tinto had received permission to conduct the blasts in 2013 under Section 18 of the Western Australia Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The inquiry is investigating the adequacy of state and Commonwealth heritage protection laws and the way they interact.

“The Western Australian legislation that enabled the destruction of Juukan Gorge is woefully out of date and poorly administered. Everyone accepts this,” the report reads.

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

Dodson also said that Rio’s report was an “unsatisfactory piece of work” that was “full of mea culpas and corporate lingo”.

The WA Government is currently reviewing these laws, which were written decades before Native Title was introduced.

Rio Tinto should pay compensation for sacred caves blast — inquiry
Juukan Gorge cave sites seen before the destruction. (Screenshot via YouTube.)

Until they are reformed, in the absence of clear consent of traditional owners, all miners should hold off new applications that would damage Aboriginal heritage sites, the committee says.

The Chamber of Minerals and Energy of Western Australia, a lobby group representing miners, said recommending a moratorium on Section 18 notices under existing laws was a “blunt instrument” that would damage communities and the economy.

Some analysts say the recommendations could lead to delays in proposed mine expansions if companies were forced to revisit past approvals.

The inquiry was called in June, three weeks after Rio Tinto blew up the heritage site. It has since held several public hearings, and received more than 140 submissions from miners, heritage specialists and Aboriginal and civil society groups.

The panel aims to finish its report in the second half of 2021, as covid-19-related disruptions have slowed down the process.