Traditional owners in Western Australia’s Pilbara region say they were rushed into signing a complex deal allowing Rio Tinto to mine on their land which could result in the destruction of more than 120 cultural heritage sites.
A federal inquiry investigating Rio’s blasting of the Juukan Gorge sites heard evidence on Monday from the Yinhawangka people, whose lands include parts of the Hamersley range which host some of the world’s richest iron ore deposits.
A participation agreement with Rio was signed on behalf of the Yinhawangka in 2013 by the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation.
Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation (YAC) chair Halloway Smirke told the hearing traditional owners had been given little opportunity to discuss the agreement, and had wrongly believed WA’s heritage laws would protect the sites.
“The people were aware of what they were signing, it was just a rushed process,” he said.
“We thought everything was going with goodwill and we thought the whole country was moving forward with goodwill.”
Archaeologist Anna Fagan said YAC had identified 124 sites that would be destroyed by the planned expansion of Rio’s Western Range project.
Another site, the Yirra rock shelter near Rio’s Channar mine, had been identified as being at least 26,000 years old, but a lack of funding had prevented deeper investigation.
“Yirra is a remarkable site but I don’t think it’s unique on Yinhawangka country,” Ms Fagan said.
“And the lack of archaeological research that’s gone into Yirra has meant that that date could be pushed much, much further back into the deep past.
“We currently have a site that’s just been excavated in Western Range that is showing similar deposits and material coming out that could easily be just as old, if not older.”
A Rio Tinto spokesman said the Western Range project area had 370 known heritage sites and the company had taken steps to protect more than 250.
The remaining sites were continuing to be assessed.
“We are actively working with the Yinhawangka people on the Western Range project and management of cultural heritage values, through dedicated monthly forums where discussions on future management will be progressed,” he said.
“(We) have a number of requests with the Yinhawangka people to conduct further surveys and time on country together.”
Rio has committed to modernising its participation agreement with the Yinhawangka people, including in relation to consent.
“We reiterate our commitment to listen to the concerns of Yinhawangka people and look forward to continuing this engagement,” the spokesman said.
“This commitment has been made to all traditional owner groups on whose country we operate in the Pilbara.”
YAC chief executive Grant Bussell told the inquiry that ill-resourced Aboriginal corporations had little chance of producing satisfactory outcomes for traditional owners when it came to negotiating with mining companies.
“Our members are not keen to stop mining on their land – they’re benefiting from it – but at the same time, protecting these places is heart and soul for them,” he said.
He said Rio had offered funding for further excavation work and appeared to be more sensitive to concerns after the Juukan Gorge scandal.
Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation also acted on behalf of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people in relation to the ancient Juukan Gorge sites.
It is yet to face the inquiry.
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