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Mining giant told to compensate Indigenous land owners for explosion

Rio Tinto hard hat
Rio Tinto hard hat

A multinational resources company has been instructed to pay for controversially blowing up ancient rock shelters as part of a metal mine expansion.

The Northern Australia Parliamentary Committee has decided Rio Tinto should try to reach settlement with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP) about the May 24 controlled explosion at Juukan Gorge, which allegedly destroyed grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4000-year-old braided hair that were inside two hidden shelters.

‘Restitution package’

“Rio Tinto [should] negotiate a restitution package for the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters with the PKKP,” the committee’s list of recommendations said.

“Return all artefacts and other materials held by Rio Tinto to PKKP and, after negotiation and by agreement with PKKP, fund appropriate keeping places for artefacts and other materials to be supervised and controlled by the PKKP … [plus] ensure a full reconstruction of the Juukan rock shelters and remediation of the site at its own expense, with guidance and oversight from the PKKP.”

No more mining

The work was intended to excavate the first mine pit as part of the Brockman 4 Iron Ore Expansion, 55km northwest of Tom Price. However, the committee now wants to cancel part of the project near the disputed rock shelter, and also stop other resources companies from mining the same area.

“[Rio should] commit to a permanent moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area, negotiated with the PKKP, and that this is respected by all mining and exploration companies,” the committee said.

“All mining companies operating in Western Australia, whether or not on native title land, [should] undertake independent review of their agreements with traditional owners and commit to ongoing regular review to ensure consistency with best practice standards.”

Bosses jump ship

Rio had already met regulatory requirements back in 2013 and apologised for any distress caused to the PKKP. However, superannuation investors were not satisfied and kept demanding Rio CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques’ resignation until he finally agreed to step down on 31 March 2021.

Iron ore chief executive Chris Salisbury is similarly leaving the company on December 31, and will be replaced by rail, port and core services managing director Ivan Vella. Corporate relations group executive Simone Niven is also quitting at the end of 2020.

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“Never again can we allow the destruction, the devastation and the vandalism of cultural sites as has occurred with the Juukan Gorge,” committee chair Warren Entsch said in a public statement.

“PKKP faced a perfect storm, with no support or protection from anywhere. They were let down by Rio Tinto, the WA Government, the Australian Government, their own lawyers and native title law … the neglect of the PKKP people stops here.”

The State Government will now consider amendments to strengthen traditional land owner protections under the existing Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.

Click here to read the full list of recommendations.

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