The traditional owners of ancient caves destroyed by Rio Tinto say they are now angry with Fortescue Metals after finding out the company wants to mine other culturally significant land nearby.
There was international outrage following the blasting of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia’s Pilbara region in May, which extracted $135 million worth of iron ore as part of Rio Tinto’s Brockman 4 mine expansion.
The Puutu Kunti Kurrama People (PKKP) are muzzled by confidentiality clauses within their participation agreement with the mining giant, so have largely limited their comments about it to their feelings of devastation, but on Monday spoke out far more openly at a federal inquiry into the blast, protected by parliamentary privilege.
PKKP cultural heritage manager Heather Builth dropped a bombshell when asked about a six-month moratorium covering Juukan Gorge and land immediately to the west that the group scrambled to secure in the wake of the scandal in a bid to protect what remains.
She revealed the group was shocked to find out three days ago that Fortescue applied on September 27 to turn two prospecting licences within the moratorium area into mining licences.
“So they’ve gone ahead, applied for mining licences over the area that we’ve got a moratorium on because of its high cultural sensitivity,” Ms Builth said.
“We weren’t told of this – we found it out ourselves.
“And now we’re very worried … we’re pretty upset with FMG at this stage as well.
“This moratorium area is where we’re going to be having discussions and furthering our understanding of this country because it relates directly to Juukan Gorge and the rock shelters.”
She said the PKKP was rushing archaeological surveys in the area later this month because the moratorium runs out in January and will then be reviewed.
“We haven’t finished our cultural mapping … of that area,” Ms Builth said.
She said Fortescue’s move was “insensitive to say the least … unconscionable to say the most”.
“We have told them that we know this and that we’re pretty upset about it. They have not reached out to us about this yet.”
Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said the prospecting licenses were granted in 2012 and cover an area about 10 kilometres from Juukan Gorge.
“As the prospecting licenses are reaching the end of their term, Fortescue submitted a mining lease application over this area which is consistent with normal practice,” Ms Gaines said.
“Fortescue has commenced discussions with the PKKP … regarding conducting extensive heritage surveys of the area and confirms that there are no current plans to mine the area.
“We take our relationship with traditional custodians very seriously and, we will continue to work with the PKKP to survey the area and understand areas of cultural significance.
“Our primary objective at all times is to work on a cultural heritage avoidance basis.
“Since the commencement of our operations, Fortescue has protected and avoided almost 6000 significant heritage places.”
The inquiry had earlier heard Rio Tinto was not allowing access to the land for cultural surveying and conservation of Indigenous artefacts.
In their submission to the committee, the PKKP said Rio Tinto had four options to mine the Juukan Gorge area – three of which avoided the destruction of the caves.
But instead, a key spiritual anchor had been lost forever, and the “incalculable cultural loss, pain and distress” was felt by all First Nations people.
The committee heard Rio Tinto had been told about the significance of the site as far back as 2008 and insisted to the PKKP on October 29 last year that vibration studies were being done to protect the caves from mining activity.
But just over six months later, the PKKP was given a few days notice that the caves would be blown up – and only after they had made repeated requests to visit the site.
“That began nine days of absolute hell for us trying to save this place,” Ms Builth told the inquiry.
In its submission, the PKKP said Rio Tinto had rebuffed repeated attempts to increase communication and “took a narrow, procedural approach to the relationship”.
“The Juukan Gorge disaster tells us that Rio Tinto’s operational mindset has been driven by compliance to minimum standards of the law and maximisation of profit. PKKP believes that this is reflective of the industry as a whole.”
Rio Tinto has publicly apologised for the destruction of the caves, which prompted the miner’s chief executive Jean Sebastien Jacques to resign from the company. He will be stepping down from the top role early next year.
The PKKP says it is seeking to reclaim artefacts put on display by Rio Tinto, which the group claims are not being looked after properly.
It is understood the parties are in discussions about reparations.
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