A parliamentary inquiry in Australia has recommended the Anglo-Australian mining company, Rio Tinto, compensate the Indigenous people in the country for the destruction of two ancient sites, and criticised the government for failing to protect the Aboriginal group.
In an interim report entitled, Never Again, released on Wednesday, the panel also recommended that the mining giant impose a moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, and rehabilitate the sacred sites, which are estimated to be 46,000 years old.
Rio Tinto triggered a public outcry in May when it blew up parts of the Juukan Gorge, as part of an expansion to extract $135m worth of iron ore.
“Never again can we allow the destruction, the devastation and the vandalism of cultural sites as has occurred with the Juukan Gorge – never again,” said Warren Entsch, House member and chairman of the panel.
Entsch said that the Indigenous people “were let down” by the mining company as well as the Western Australian government, the federal government, their own lawyers and Native Title law itself.
“In making these recommendations today, the Committee and I want to break that cycle. The neglect of the PKKP people stops here,” he said referring to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples living in the destroyed sites in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.
Provisions in the state laws of Western Australia – including the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 – also allowed the company to legally carry out the destruction, it noted. Under Section 18 of the act, developers can apply for consent to legally damage or destroy Indigenous sites.
Return of artefacts
While the full report is not due until the second half of next year, the panel emphasised that Rio Tinto must carry out the reconstruction and rehabilitation at its own expense.
All artefacts taken from the destroyed sites must also be returned, and all agreement reached with traditional owners of the holy sites must be reviewed.
At least 13 public hearings have been conducted since the destruction took place in May, and the panel received more than 140 submissions from miners, heritage specialists and Aboriginal and civil society groups.
Entsch, the head of the inquiry panel, said that with the volume of evidence presented, as well as delays due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the committee would not be able to wrap up the investigation until next year.
The panel has not yet spelled out the amount of restitution the mining giant will have to pay to the Indigenous Australians, but noted that there was “still a long way to go” before the damage was fixed.
“Rio Tinto now needs to turn its words into actions,” it said.
In September, anger at the destruction of the sites forced Rio Tinto’s CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, to announce his resignation, although he will only leave his post officially in March 2021. Two other executives were also forced to resign.
In a statement on Wednesday, Rio Tinto said it “acknowledges” the report and “reiterates its apology” to the Indigenous people, adding that destruction “should not have occurred”.
“We recognise the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters caused significant pain to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and we are working very hard to progress a remedy with them,” said Simon Thompson, chairman of Rio Tinto.
Experts said significant reforms to legislation are required to ensure such destruction does not happen again. A bill to remove Section 18 is currently undergoing public consultation.
“The inquiry has laid bare the overwhelming challenges faced by First Nations peoples when mining occurs on their land,” Deanna Kemp, John Owen and Rodger Barnes, from the University of Queensland’s Centre for Social Responsibility in Mining, wrote in The Conversation. “It highlights the urgent need for a rebalancing of power to avoid mining production priorities dominating at the expense of all else.”
The academics said their research had found that the work of community relations and Indigenous affairs teams remained “peripheral” to mine planning and production, while employees with a limited understanding of customary land issues dominated the discussion over land access and cultural heritage.
They noted that while companies had rushed to bolster communities and heritage teams in the wake of Jukaan Gorge, more had to be done.
“Social specialists and Indigenous people must hold positions of authority and have influence internally to contain corporate self-interest,” they wrote.
According to estimates, Rio Tinto has a valuation of $123bn. The company is also facing several allegations of corruption and environmental destruction in other parts of the world, including in China and Papua New Guinea and the United States.