Rio Tinto has caved to demands to release an internal review into its bungled decision to destroy a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site in Western Australia, due for completion in October, after initially saying it would provide key findings only to the government.
On Friday the company appointed a former Australian high commissioner to the UK, Michael L’Estrange, to lead the review into the destruction of Juukan Gorge, following weeks of criticism from major shareholders, the fracturing of its relationship with traditional owners, and the establishment of a Senate inquiry.
The review would begin immediately, Rio said.
L’Estrange has been a non-executive director of Rio Tinto since 2014 and is also the deputy chancellor of Notre Dame university.
L’Estrange will review the company’s heritage management processes, and make recommendations to improve its internal governance.
Rio Tinto has faced global criticism since the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation revealed it had destroyed two sites in Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region on 24 May as part of the expansion of its Brockman 4 mine.
It was also stripped of its partnership with Reconciliation Australia and has damaged its relationship with the PKKP, who hold native title over the Brockman 4 area, after it was reported that Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury told staff in Perth that he had offered only a qualified apology for causing any distress, rather than admitting any wrongdoing.
The archaeological record for one of those sites showed it was occupied for more than 46,000 years by the PKKP people, including through the last ice age, when most inland sites in northwest Australia were deserted as people fled to the coast.
The archaeologist who surveyed it and conducted a salvage dig in 2014, one year after Rio Tinto received permission under WA’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws to destroy the site, said it was a “very significant site”, the kind an archaeologist would explore only once in a lifetime.
Reconciliation Australia said the decision to undertake the blasting activity next to the site, which caused its destruction, was “a breathtaking breach of a respectful relationship” and failed to meet its standards as well as Rio Tinto’s “own aspirations to advance reconciliation”. It said it would only reinstate the partnership if Rio Tinto showed it had repaired that relationship and if it made the internal review public.
Earlier this month, Salisbury said the review would not be released, but would form the basis for a submission to the WA government’s long-running review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.
Rio Tinto’s global chief executive, Jean-Sebastian Jacques, said regaining the trust of all traditional owners that work with the company in its extensive iron ore mines in the Pilbara was his first priority.
“Our immediate priority is to regain the trust of traditional owners, starting with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people,” he said. “We very much look forward to incorporating the findings of the board-led review into our heritage processes and approach.”
London-based chairman Simon Thompson, who was grilled about the incident by key shareholders such as Aberdeen Standard Investments and Legal and General earlier this month, added his apology to those already offered by Salisbury and Jacques.
“On behalf of the Rio Tinto board, I would like to apologise to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people,” he said. “The decision to conduct a board-led review of events at Juukan Gorge reflects our determination to learn lessons from what happened and to make any necessary improvements to our heritage processes and governance.”
It comes as a former anthropological advisor to Rio Tinto, Prof Glynn Cochrane, told the ABC that the board is less focused on protecting heritage than on “what it can get away with”.
“It was an accident waiting to happen and I think it will happen again unless the fundamental structural and personnel problems are addressed,” Cochrane said.
Credit: Source link