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Rio Tinto admits it ‘missed opportunities’ to save heritage site

By Nick Toscano, The Age

An article by Nick Toscano, The Age 4 August 2020

Miner Rio Tinto has acknowledged it missed a series of opportunities to better communicate with traditional landowners or pause to rethink a proposed mine expansion that might have prevented the destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Western Australia.

Rio Tinto, Australia’s second-largest miner, has faced a storm of condemnation after destroying the two ancient Aboriginal rock shelters at WA’s Juukan Gorge on the Sunday before National Reconciliation Week, prompting a federal Senate inquiry into the events and the adequacy of the country’s heritage-protection laws.

The company had legal approval to blast the site in order to expand its Brockman 4 iron ore mine and said it believed it also had the consent of traditional landowners – the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) – until it was too late to call off the detonation.

In a detailed submission to the Senate inquiry released on Tuesday, the miner admits it could have made better decisions and been better partners with the PKKP in the years leading up to the blast in May.

In a detailed submission to the Senate inquiry released on Tuesday, the miner admits it could have made better decisions and been better partners with the PKKP in the years leading up to the blast in May.

Following further excavations commissioned by Rio Tinto in 2014, which found the site to be of vastly greater archaeological significance that initially thought, the company, in collaboration with the PKKP, began work on retrieving thousands of artefacts and putting them into storage. The miner’s submission acknowledges that it missed a number of important opportunities to reconsider its plans.

“Several further opportunities were missed at this stage to pause and reflect on whether the agreed plan of ex-situ preservation of the heritage material discovered within the rock shelters was sufficient or whether the rock shelters themselves should be also preserved,” the company said.

The PKKP has previously rejected Rio’s claims that it had not been made aware of its wish for the Juukan Gorge site to be preserved prior to May 2020, by which time the explosives were unable to be safely removed. Rio’s submission on Tuesday highlighted “differences in recollection” of a key conversation between a PKKP consultant and the Brockman 4 mine manager in October 2019.

“Is that gorge/cave going to be taken out by the pits?” PKKP cultural heritage manager, Heather Builth, is said to have asked, noting that it would be in the “top five locations in the Pilbara with respect to cultural importance”.

Rio’s submission said the mine manager was not sure where Dr Builth was pointing. “As he was not sure … he did not give a definitive answer,” the company said.

Rio Tinto chief executive, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, will front the inquiry on Friday to give evidence about what went wrong in the lead-up to the blast and consider legislative changes.

“The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters should not have occurred and I have unreservedly apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people,” Mr Jacques said on Tuesday.

“As a first priority our aim is to strengthen our partnership with the PKKP. That remains our focus. We have also taken actions to strengthen governance, controls and approvals on heritage matters.”

Artefacts found during Rio’s 2014 excavations 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 from plaited human hair with DNA linking it to today’s PKKP people who have placed the site among the country’s most significant archaeological research sites.

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