Rio Tinto steps up efforts to repair damaged Indigenous ties

Rio Tinto Iron Ore’s Mount Tom Price mine in Western Australia. (Reference image by Bäras, Wikimedia Commons).

Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) continues to make public its efforts to repair its damaged relations with Australian traditional landowners after the destruction a 46,000-year-old sacred site last year, by outlining detailed plans to improve its cultural heritage management.

The mining giant said on Tuesday it will hold virtual seminars to demonstrate the steps it had taken to make amends after the Juukan Gorge incident, which sparked international outrage and cost several top executives their jobs.

Rio also said it had kicked off a review on best practices for cultural heritage management in the mining industry, which will be done in consultation with a newly formed Indigenous advisory group and other independent parties.

The goal, the world’s second-largest miner said, is to identify gaps in current protocols and provide a clear pathway to re-establish trust over time and regain Rio Tinto’s previous standing in this area.

“We must focus on real engagement with our communities, understanding their felt experience and never forgetting that, ultimately, we are guests on their land,” chief executive Jakob Stausholm says.

Tony Bevan, a director at Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC), one of nine Aboriginal Corporations that have agreements with Rio, told Reuters that the mining company had not provided them any details on the plans.

“WGAC [has] yet to see any evidence of a strengthened and improved approach to cultural heritage management. We have no visibility on the significantly strengthened internal practices, policies and governance that [are] referred to,” Bevan said, adding the announcement “came across as another big company marketing document.”

Looming legislation change

Rio Tinto’s demolition of the Juukan sacred caves, which had permit approval, not only caused a global outcry, it also triggered a government inquiry that recommended legal and sectorial reforms, including the halt all of Rio’s activities in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

The parliamentary commission also asked the miner to undertake land rehabilitation and review all of its agreements with traditional owners.

The inquiry has not detailed 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 artifacts and other materials could be stored and displayed.

The Western Australia government is currently reviewing these laws, which were written decades before Native Title was introduced.