Northern Australia Joint Standing Committee chair Warren Entsch is optimistic that the broken relationship between Rio Tinto and the Puuti, Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Traditional Owners can be repaired.
Entsch, stating in an Australian parliamentary committee interim report released on Wednesday, called out the failure of Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Australian Government, native title law and the PKKP’s lawyers to protect Aboriginal heritage.
“The PKKP faced a perfect storm, with no support or protection from anywhere,” Entsch said.
“… Such a valuable heritage site could be destroyed in complete accordance with the law, and without any means for Traditional Owners or their representatives to effectively intervene…”
The federal law of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 was also proven to have limited value in the protection of Indigenous heritage during the inquiry.
Entsch added that the Traditional Owners of the Pilbara were not opposed to mining.
“They see the possibilities that development offers both to themselves and to other Australians,” he said.
“They do not accept, and we should not accept, that the destruction of their ancient culture and heritage is the price to pay for potentially short term prosperity.”
In responding to the interim report, Rio Tinto reiterated its apology to the PKKP and expressed its agreement that the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters should have been avoided.
“The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters was wrong; it should not have happened and it does not reflect the values that Rio Tinto aspires to,” the company stated.
Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said that it would ensure that such destruction would never happen again.
“We recognise the importance of ensuring relationships with Traditional Owners are built on partnerships based on mutual benefit, respect and trust,” he said.
Rio Tinto has now committed to modernise its agreements with the Traditional Owners, while working with them to rehabilitate the Juukan Gorge shelters.
It is also reassessing any activities that would impact heritage sites, particularly sites that could be impacted over the next 18 to 24 months.
Rio Tinto is also putting its executives accountable for impacts to heritage sites where avoidance is not possible.