Rio Tinto missed numerous opportunities to prevent the destruction of two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters but has urged policymakers not to respond in a way that could deter investment in Australia’s booming iron ore industry.
In its submission to a parliamentary inquiry, the miner said there were chances to alter a mine expansion plan amid “growing awareness” of the cultural significance of the Juukan Gorge site in Western Australia.
However, these were missed and Rio admitted it did not “clearly communicate” the timing of the planned destruction of the shelters to the native land owners.
The destruction of the sacred site in May triggered an international outcry and has tarnished the reputation of the Anglo-Australian group as a leader on indigenous issues. Rio makes most of its profits from iron ore mines in Western Australia.
The company has launched a board-led investigation into the blasts and has started to change some of its internal processes.
“The destruction of the Juukan rockshelters should not have occurred and I have unreservedly apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP),” Rio’s chief executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, said in the submission. He will appear before MPs on Friday.
Rio secured legal approval from the Western Australian government to destroy the caves in 2013, as part of the expansion of its Brockman 4 mine. Before that it had negotiated native title agreements with the PKKP, giving it rights to mine the area.
In its submission, Rio said it “missed opportunities” to alter the mine plan after a dig in 2014 underlined the cultural and historical significance of the caves and again in 2018, after the final report on the archaeological excavations. The report said one of the rock shelters had “the amazing potential to radically change our understanding of the earliest human behaviour” in Australia.
“From early 2020, there also appears to have been growing awareness within the PKKP, and within Rio Tinto, of the greater cultural heritage significance of the wider Juukan Gorge area,” the report said.
By the time Rio received a formal request from the PKKP to cease mining activity at the site in May, the “blasting sequence had already commenced” and it was too late to save the shelters.
The company called for a measured response to the destruction of the caves, saying any changes to heritage laws needed to strike the right balance.
“On the one hand, it is essential to find more effective and flexible means to escalate and manage concerns regarding the preservation of the unique cultural heritage of Indigenous Australians,” it said. “On the other, there needs to be a clear and predictable framework to enable long-term investment in, and the efficient operation of, mining projects that contribute so significantly to Australia.”
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Edward Sterck, analyst at BMO Capital Markets, the approval process for mining companies to remove or destroy culturally significant sites in Australia was likely to be come “significantly more” rigorous in the wake of the parliamentary inquiry. “This could have long-term implications with regards to production rates,” he said.
Kimberley Aboriginal Law and Cultural Centre, an indigenous organisation, said the destruction of the gorge had quite rightly triggered national outrage but was part of a wider pattern of behaviour due to the marginalisation of indigenous people in Australia.
“If as a nation we continually marginalise, disenfranchise, disempower and ignore the cultural custodians, then what exactly is this thing called cultural heritage?” it said in a submission to the inquiry.
“Aboriginal people feel powerless to protect cultural sites, many of which are important national and global cultural treasures, against development.”
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