I not too long ago spoke to a gathering of Rio Tinto’s institutional buyers in Britain who wished an Aboriginal perspective on the corporate’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old caves at Juukan Gorge close to the Brockman iron ore mine within the Pilbara area in Western Australia.
The assembly was convened by the influential Native Authority Pension Fund Discussion board, which holds £300bn in property, together with shares in Rio Tinto.
The discussion board had questions and considerations, as do I, about how this destruction might have occurred. Greater than 50 buyers, attorneys, consultants and activists joined the decision.
I supplied them with a abstract of my in depth considerations concerning the matter.
The destruction of the Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto at first of Nationwide Reconciliation Week eliminated the final remaining proof of the oldest website of human occupation on the continent and probably on the earth.
Regardless of objections from Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) individuals, Rio Tinto secured authorized approval for this desecration in 2013 from Western Australian authorities beneath the state’s 1972 Aboriginal Heritage Act, which is presently beneath assessment by the Western Australian authorities.
The destruction of the websites was condemned by many in Australia, significantly Aboriginal native title and land rights councils, who shaped a nationwide coalition to hunt reform to laws such because the act in Western Australia which, removed from defending Aboriginal cultural heritage, supplies a fast-track for mining firms to destroy it.
Archaeologists had protested too. A 2014 emergency excavation secured potent objects of worldwide significance, together with a four,000-year-old hair belt that made evident the bodily connection between the current-day PKKP conventional house owners and their ancestors, and the oldest instance of bone know-how recognized in Australia.
Rio Tinto’s response was typical of its cultural heritage follow: elimination of essential objects from their ancestral locations and isolation in transport containers on Rio Tinto mining lease areas. The corporate refers to this follow as “rescue”. Nevertheless it contravenes globally acknowledged cultural heritage requirements, particularly human rights requirements in relation to the cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples, their rights to follow their tradition, to manage their heritage and the fitting to free, prior and knowledgeable consent in relation to issues affecting them.
I don’t consider that Rio Tinto has taken its authorized obligations in relation to the cultural heritage issues of the PKKP conventional house owners of the Juukan Gorge caves in any respect significantly.
The historical past of this sort of therapy of Aboriginal sacred websites in Western Australia by this firm goes again an extended, great distance.
In 1991 on the Marandoo website, Hamersley mining – which Rio Tinto now owns – proposed to destroy 18,000-year-old sacred websites for an iron ore mine. The premier of Western Australia on the time handed the Aboriginal Heritage Act that enabled the corporate to destroy the websites. There was a really lengthy, bitter feud between the corporate and the standard house owners, and it took a few years for that relationship to enhance. A part of the method of mending that relationship was negotiating the very settlement beneath which the Juukan Gorge caves had been destroyed.
When Leon Davis grew to become the chief government of Rio Tinto in 1997, he recognised that its social licence to function in Australia trusted respect for Aboriginal conventional house owners, particularly following the popularity of native title rights throughout the Keating authorities.
Davis took over Rio Tinto because it was striving to beat the reputational injury of its disastrous dealing with of the Panguna mine on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea within the 1980s, which led to an extended civil warfare. The corporate then operated beneath the identify CRA, however Rio Tinto maintains possession of the Panguna lease and is searching for to reopen the mine.
Groups of specialists negotiated agreements beneath the phrases of the Native Title Act and set requirements that had been unprecedented within the Australian mining trade. These agreements had been registered within the federal courtroom and had been binding. Surveys involving conventional house owners marked out areas for cultural and environmental safety, new applications led to the employment of excessive numbers of Aboriginal individuals for the primary time, and likewise enterprise alternatives for Indigenous locals. This work was showcased internationally to acquire agreements to mine in Africa, Mongolia, south-east Asia and North America.
In 2008, with Prof Ciaran O’Faircheallaigh, I detailed good follow in these agreements in a report performed collectively with conventional house owners within the Pilbara, the native title consultant physique and Rio Tinto Iron Ore. We emphasised that safety of cultural heritage was a matter of nice concern to Aboriginal individuals. Some firm personnel and advisers failed to know how crucial the safety of cultural heritage is to the corporate’s social licence to function.
It’s clear to me that little has modified since 2008. The destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves demonstrates that within the implementation of Indigenous land use agreements, Rio Tinto has little regard for the formal provisions of settlement and little regard for the spirit of the settlement that establishes a “partnership” with the standard house owners.
Within the 2010s, the corporate’s fortunes hit obstacles when a string of circumstances of corruption had been uncovered and unhealthy investments in alumina elevated its debt to ranges that brought on a serious rethink. Neighborhood relations personnel in Australia had been made redundant and the advanced native title agreements had been handed over to spin docs to handle. The corporate’s management modified once more in 2016 with the appointment of Jean-Sébastien Jacques as CEO.
Rio Tinto has now introduced it’ll conduct an inner assessment.
I’ve spoken to the CEO of Rio Tinto, the chairman and others about their assessment. I declined to be concerned within the assessment besides to make a submission. I wrote to them with my considerations that the assessment seems to be restricted to inner issues solely. The assessment might be insufficient if it doesn’t have in mind the legislative, coverage and Indigenous rights setting, wherein the settlement with the PKKP is only one of many.
The social licence of Rio Tinto to function, and the way forward for relationships with conventional house owners and the Aboriginal individuals of Australia who trusted that Rio Tinto management had been honest of their coverage, are all in danger and not using a thorough reform of the implementation of those participation agreements.
I stay firmly of the view that Rio Tinto’s inner assessment must be clear and contain the standard house owners within the PKKP, different conventional house owners within the Pilbara and the Nationwide Native Title Council.
The report must be public and clear, and the findings mentioned with leaders within the native title sector upon completion.
Not simply the status of Rio Tinto but in addition the as soon as excellent relationship with the native title sector shouldn’t be sacrificed to expedient operational points.
The affect of Rio Tinto’s efficiency on the requirements of the broader useful resource sector is a matter for concern.
One of many issues that should be raised is the need of the standard house owners to have a conserving place within the Pilbara for his or her cultural heritage. Rio Tinto made a dedication to be concerned on this and to assist fund it, in order that all the teams within the Pilbara would have a conserving place for his or her cultural heritage. In some circumstances, as an alternative of fully destroying a website, they’ve eliminated very treasured cave work, historic petroglyphs, and saved them in transport containers close to mine websites.
In addition to conserving locations, I consider that reparations are because of the conventional house owners for the destruction of their websites, and for the shortage of entry to the cultural heritage that’s saved in transport containers across the Pilbara on mine websites.
The long run location of the sacred materials faraway from the Juukan Gorge caves is a matter of nice significance to the standard house owners, however it’s also a matter of nationwide significance to the nation. The look after such objects of world significance is the accountability of the nation, and particularly the nationwide authorities.
The Australian authorities has been negligent in leaving these issues to a state that’s economically depending on iron ore royalties and has demonstrated repeatedly traditionally that Aboriginal cultural heritage might be sacrificed to safe the circulation of mining royalties to the state’s coffers.
The Senate has established an inquiry as effectively in response to the destruction of the Juukan Gorge sacred websites, and we are going to see how that proceeds. I’ll make a submission to that as effectively.
The flexibility of Rio Tinto to be clear, frank and cooperative with this Senate inquiry might be telling, not only for the corporate’s standing but in addition the affect on the mining trade.
I inspired the buyers to remain conscious of those two inquiries, to search out out as a lot as they will concerning the aspirations of the standard house owners, and discover how Rio Tinto could make some amends for an egregious act of vandalism, not simply in relation to the websites of significance to the standard house owners, however to websites of significance for human historical past.
There’s now a robust case to overtake the WA Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act to forestall outrages like this sooner or later.
There’s additionally a robust case for motion towards the corporate for breaching the understanding of the settlement with the standard house owners.
A radical investigation is required, and a mere apology simply is not going to reduce it.
• Professor Marcia Langton holds the inspiration chair of Australian Indigenous research on the College of Melbourne within the school of drugs. Langton has had an extended involvement in analysis on the mining trade and has suggested a number of firms on Indigenous engagement