An Aboriginal group on whose lands Rio Tinto mines iron ore in Western Australia said it did not support the miner’s board appointment of former state minister Ben Wyatt, citing his approvals that led to the destruction of cultural heritage sites.
Wyatt, the state’s former treasurer and Aboriginal affairs minister, is to be Rio’s first Indigenous board member, the firm said on Friday, as it moves to restore a reputation tarnished after last year’s destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters.
“Unfortunately, our engagement with Mr Wyatt has not been positive and we do not see him helping to restore Rio’s reputation with indigenous stakeholders,” said Glen Camile, chairman of the firm that holds native title to the lands.
The firm’s view was largely based on Wyatt’s consistent approval of applications to destroy Aboriginal heritage sites in the state’s development process, it said in a statement late on Friday.
The firm, the Winatwari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC), holds native title to an area of the Pilbara that contains almost 40% of Rio’s Australian iron ore mines.
Rio Tinto declined to comment.
Wyatt, who retired from politics in March after 15 years in state parliament, said the overall response to his appointment had been positive, particularly among Aboriginal people and groups.
“But I’ve been perplexed that some of the critique has come from people and organizations that have demanded Aboriginal people get on boards and have a say and yet critiquing me going on,” he told ABC Radio Perth on Friday.
“I suspect it’s just a case of ‘Well, not that Aboriginal.’ People need to have a look at themselves in the way they conduct themselves in some of this debate.”
Over the decade from July 2010, state ministers for Aboriginal affairs approved all but one of more than 460 applications from miners to disturb or destroy sites of potential cultural significance, parliament records show.
These included a decision by Wyatt to allow the destruction of 50 sites sacred to WGAC at Spear Hill, in 2017, in an application by Fortescue Metals, without considering information from the traditional owners, the firm said.
“During his four years as minister, Wyatt never once met with any of the Wintawari elders or board,” it added, despite board invitations stretching back to December 2019.
Although the damage was limited with legal action, WGAC has said Fortescue’s activity permanently damaged the cultural values of the site, which includes petroglyphs and a rock shelter showing human activity dating back 60,000 years.
(By Melanie Burton; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)