If you needed any convincing the tragic destruction of the Juukan caves was not just a Rio Tinto issue but one for the entire resources industry, the remorse expressed by key mining players to federal parliamentarians on Thursday should have won you over.
First, there were these comments about trust from BHP, a company which has admitted it knew traditional owners didn’t want their sites disturbed yet proceeded to apply for legal permission to destroy them anyway last year.
“We recognise that what has been lost at Juukan Gorge is not only a site that is unique Aboriginal culture and heritage but also a loss of trust,” its head of Australian mining Edgar Basto told a federal parliamentary committee on Thursday.
“We understand that for many people, including the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, this incident can raise questions of trust, not just for the individual company in Perth but our industry more broadly.”
Then this from influential lobbyist Paul Everingham from the Chamber of Minerals and Energy (CME) of WA, which represents all the big mining companies in the Pilbara, including Rio Tinto.
“Does it reflect poorly on us? Absolutely,” he said.
“Do we need to do better? Absolutely.”
Their comments to the parliamentary committee investigating the Juukan caves incident were almost like a formal apology, even though it wasn’t their organisations which blew up the 46,000-year-old site on Sorry Day.
They were a strong indication of just how badly the incident has hurt the reputation of the WA resources industry.
So will it be enough to fundamentally change how they do business?
Miners’ social licence questioned
For now, observers say the industry is shell-shocked and still trying to manage the backlash over the Juukan caves, especially as institutional investors question their social licence to operate.
Their shock is partly because the incident involved Rio Tinto — which in the past had been a global leader in indigenous relations — and also because the company had, like so many of them over the past decades, used its legal rights to destroy Aboriginal heritage with the approval of the WA Government.
Even former WA Premier Colin Barnett, a resources industry champion whose Aboriginal Affairs Minister Peter Collier approved the 2013 application by Rio to destroy the caves for its Brockman 4 iron ore mine, says there needs to be changes.
He said the destruction of the Juukan caves was “a very serious situation of global interest” and should be fully investigated by a royal commission.
“I think there are wider implications here about the administration of mining and, if you like, the social responsibility of the mining companies,” he said.
Super funds pushed for change
The biggest changes so far have arguably come from outside WA, driven by shareholders, particularly institutional investors, whose pressure saw the forced resignations of three top Rio executives.
Not-for-profit superannuation funds like AustralianSuper, HESTA and UniSuper had criticised Rio for how it handled the Juukun incident.
HESTA, for example, has also pushed for change in more than a dozen mining companies, demanding an explanation of how they manage their risks by dealing appropriately with traditional owners on heritage issues.
Shareholder activists are now not just targeting Rio but all the big iron ore companies operating in the Pilbara — like BHP and Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) — which have used legal approvals issued by the WA Government to destroy or disturb Aboriginal heritage sites.
They are demanding significant changes, along with the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), with the support of many indigenous leaders, requesting that resolutions be put to BHP and FMG’s annual general meetings on these issues:
• A temporary moratorium on the destruction of cultural heritage sites until the parliamentary committee inquiry and heritage law reforms in WA are completed
• A lifting of gag clauses in agreements that prevent traditional owners from speaking out publicly or raising grievances about their heritage
• Companies pull back on the activities of their lobbyists in the inquiry and law reform processes
Incident caught companies ‘by surprise’
While the resolution is on BHP’s agenda for its October 14 AGM, ACCR chief executive Brynn O’Brien said that FMG had not accepted the resolutions because of a COVID-related delivery delay.
Ms O’Brien said the Juukan incident had been a gamechanger which had caught many resources companies and investors by surprise.
Before then, many institutional investors had not understood the day-to-day operations of mining companies and were not confident in talking about cultural heritage.
“These activities which have been commonplace in Western Australian mining, and iron ore in particular, over the last many decades … haven’t caught up to the growing social discontent and investor discontent with structural racism,” she said.
Ms O’Brien said the BHP resolutions were developed with the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, a group of Indigenous leaders from land councils, native title bodies and community organisations formed a few months ago.
“The formation of the alliance at this time has been critical because the investment sector now has a body of expertise, a group of experts to go to,” Ms O’Brien said.
The National Native Title Council is a member of the alliance and its chief executive, Jamie Lowe, said it was still too early to say whether companies had made systemic changes to their behaviour.
“We will judge them by their actions,” he said.
Law reform the best protection
As an example of how some companies have responded to the Juukan backlash, BHP has made changes to how it handles cultural heritage, its relations with traditional owners and its social licence to operate.
Its executives explained to the parliamentary committee on Thursday that it had been:
• Creating an internal heritage advisory council to consult with Banjima elders over the South Flank mine.
• Not enforcing the confidentiality provisions of agreements with traditional owners to allow them to express concerns over cultural heritage
• Reviewing and not acting on Section 18 approvals to destroy or harm cultural heritage sites without extensive consultation with traditional owners, including the South Flank mine
Mr Lowe said the best way of ensuring heritage protection was via law reform, starting with WA’s decades-old Aboriginal heritage laws which gave Rio the power over the Juukan caves.
WA Government releases draft laws
It’s a point where most parties are in agreement, from the CME to many resources companies to traditional owners.
The WA Government recently released draft laws to overhaul how heritage is managed in the State, including giving traditional owners appeal rights and a stronger involvement in managing heritage sites.
But there are some contentious elements, including ministerial powers which some Aboriginal leaders say could result in another Juukan incident.
It’s fair to say the final draft, developed after this latest round of consultation, will be one of the most closely-watched pieces of legislation to enter the WA Parliament.
It’s not until then that we will know just how much resources companies will have to change the way they do business.
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