BHP on Wednesday said it had spoken with its Indigenous partners across its operations and had confirmed to them that it would not act on any of its existing approvals to impact heritage sites under the WA state heritage act until it had re-engaged with traditional owner groups. BHP, which like Rio also operates in the Pilbara region, has previously said it would pause plans to destroy up to 40 significant Aboriginal sites at its $4.5 billion South Flank project in order to re-consult with the Banjima people.
“We recognise that what was lost at Juukan Gorge is not only the loss of a site of deep and unique living cultural heritage, but also a loss of trust – not just for the company involved, but with impacts for the entire resource industry,” BHP said.
The BHP officials to face the federal inquiry are head of Indigenous engagement Libby Ferrari, WA heritage manager David Bunting, and Australian mining operations president Edgar Basto.
Calls for BHP to commit to stronger measures, however, have been spreading across the Pilbara mining heartland.
BHP and the Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest-backed miner Fortescue are facing demands from a coalition of key Indigenous land councils and native-title groups for a moratorium on all activities that threaten to disturb, destroy or desecrate heritage sites until the WA government has completed an ongoing review to strengthen relevant laws.
Shareholders will vote on the moratorium at BHP’s upcoming investor meeting next month under a resolution put forward by the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) in partnership with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance and co-filed by 100 shareholders.
We recognise that what was lost at Juukan Gorge is not only the loss of a site of deep and unique living cultural heritage, but also a loss of trust […] with impacts for the entire resource industry.
BHP’s board is urging investors to vote against the moratorium, saying the resolution, if passed, would have the unintended consequence of forcing a unilateral action on traditional owners by setting aside their existing agreements with BHP without consultation with traditional owners.
“No matter how well-intentioned, the board cannot recommend a vote in favour of a resolution that would have this effect,” it said. “Nor can the board support a resolution that could have the effect of setting a precedent for such outcomes in the resources sector more broadly.”
The board said BHP agreed that legislative reform was required, but noted that its policies, practices and agreements with Indigenous peoples “well exceed” the legislative framework.
“For BHP, the current legislative framework is only a starting point,” it said.
After some traditional owners across BHP’s operations voiced concerns that they felt clauses in their agreements prevented them from publicly speaking out about matters of heritage on their ancestral lands, BHP on Wednesday said it had assured them they had the right to speak freely on all such matters. If any part of an agreement could be construed as a restriction on public statements, BHP said it would not enforce that clause.
For nearly 30 years since traditional ownership rights were recognised, Indigenous owners in WA’s iron ore-rich Pilbara have been entering into legally binding native title agreements with mining companies, under which miners provide valuable royalty streams in exchange for the impact to their land and cultural heritage.
However, Rio Tinto’s Juukan Gorge disaster has brought into sharp focus concerns about the power imbalance between the companies and traditional owners, who have no legal power to prevent projects that would harm heritage on their ancestral land.
Business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
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