Mining giant Rio Tinto decided to destroy two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in order to access $135 million worth of iron ore that would not have been available under alternative mining plans avoiding the culturally significant site.
The nation’s second-largest miner has faced a storm of condemnation after legally destroying the ancient site in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge, against the will of the land’s traditional owners, on the Sunday before National Reconciliation Week.
Fronting a federal parliamentary inquiry into the events on Friday, Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques outlined how the miner had considered four options to expand its Brockman 4 iron ore mine in 2012-13, three of which would have avoided the Juukan shelters by varying distances. But the company opted for a fourth option, Mr Jacques said, which involved destroying the site in order to access a greater amount of higher-grade iron ore.
“The difference was 8 million tonnes of higher-grade iron ore,” Mr Jacques said. The value of that volume of the steelmaking raw material at the time was estimated to be $135 million, he added. In 2019 Rio Tinto shipped 327.4 million tonnes of iron ore from the Pilbara.Advertisement
Under questioning, Mr Jacques said the land’s traditional owners – the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people – were never told there were other options that could have protected the Juukan Gorge site.
“The PKKP was not made aware that four options were available in 2012 and 2013,” he said. “Only one option was presented to the PKKP.”
Warren Entsch, chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, said he was disturbed by the fact the PKKP were not fully informed about other possible mining plans, and wanted the inquiry to delve further into the matter at a later date.
“When we talk about the principle of free prior and – I highlight – ‘informed’ consent, there is an admission that it was conveyed to the PKKP that there was only one option,” he said. “That really bothers me.”
Rio Tinto, which had legal approval to blast the Juukan Gorge site, said it believed it had the consent of the PKKP until representatives for the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation approached the company once the explosive charges were already in place and the detonation could not be called off safely. The PKKP has rejected claims it had not previously relayed the preference for the ancient site to be preserved.
The Juukan Gorge disaster has highlighted the power imbalance between the nation’s mining giants and Indigenous communities and raises questions being explored by the inquiry about a need for greater legal protections for traditional owners to safeguard significant sites on their ancestral land.
In its submission to the inquiry, Rio acknowledged it could have made better decisions and been better partners with the PKKP in the years leading up to the blast in May. The miner said it had missed multiple opportunities to better communicate with the traditional landowners or pause to rethink its mine expansion plan.
The inquiry also asked Mr Jacques to respond to claims in The Australian Financial Review by his predecessor, Sam Walsh, who said he had ordered the gorge not to be mined when he was chief executive. Mr Jacques told the inquiry the law firm hired to establish the timeline from 2003 to the date of the blast did not find any such directions from the former CEO.
The $180 billion super fund giant AustralianSuper, a Rio Tinto shareholder, on Friday vowed to demand “true accountability” from the company.
“Rio Tinto’s actions are totally unacceptable,” AustralianSuper envrionmental, social and governance director Andrew Gray said. “The fund has had a number of conversations with senior Rio Tinto board members and executives and expressed this to them.”
Mr Jacques on Friday reiterated his apology to the PKKP.
“Their pain became very personal to me when I spoke to their current and previous chairs a few months ago,” he said. “These conversations will stay with me forever.”
Mr Jacques said he recognised that the events at Juukan “should not have happened”.
“I believe when mining is done well, it significantly contributes to all Australians, including Indigenous communities,” he said. “What has become clear to me is this: Rio Tinto and the industry must listen more to the voice of traditional owners. And I mean, really listen.”
Ancient artefacts unearthed at Juukan Gorge – including grinding and pounding stones, a 28,000-year-old marsupial bone which had been sharpened into a tool and a 4000-year-old belt made of plaited human hair with DNA linking it to today’s PKKP people – have placed the site among the country’s most significant archaeological research sites.