The traditional owners of Juukan Gorge have signed a preliminary agreement with Rio Tinto to co-manage land that is still being mined for iron ore.
The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people said the mining giant broke their trust with the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site, which was blown up by Rio Tinto in May 2020 in an effort to access more high-grade iron ore at its Brockman 4 mine.
The traditional owners have demanded they be given a co-management role in determining the future of mines that fall within their native title area, Que cubre 10,888 sq km between Onslow and Tom Price in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
The chair of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, Burchall Hayes, said the signing of a new heads of agreement this week was the first step in rebuilding that relationship. It outlines principles of co-management of Aboriginal heritage sites that fall within Rio’s mining leases on PKKP lands, including greater involvement by the PKKP on mining activities on their land and clear identification of which PKKP people speak for which area.
“This agreement provides clear acknowledgment that Rio Tinto accepts that the destruction of the rock shelters should not have happened and makes clear that it is absolutely committed to listening, learning, changing and co-managing country,” Hayes said in a statement on Friday.
“While the agreement is non-binding, we believe it is a clear signal of intent from Rio Tinto and one that will ultimately be tested in the co-management agreement that is reached.”
Rio Tinto’s iron ore chief executive, Simon Trott, said the company “continues to reflect on the loss and hurt that we caused at Juukan Gorge which was a clear breach of our values”.
"The PKKP people have graciously shared their knowledge to help inform our approach to best practice management and protection of cultural heritage as well as how we can deliver better social and economic outcomes on the ground,” Trott said. “Our discussions on these matters continue as we work to create a shared future.”
The global investor fallout from destroying the shelters led to Rio placing a moratorium on mining within 10 sq km around the site, the value of which dwarfed that of the eight tonnes of high-grade ore accessed by destroying the heritage site. It also led to the chair of the board standing down and the departure of three senior Rio Tinto executives, including the chief executive.
A parliamentary inquiry into the incident criticised the mining company and state and federal governments, finding there had been “failures at every level” in legislation as well as Rio’s own processes. Eso recommended an overhaul of Western Australian and federal heritage laws.
New heritage laws passed by the WA government last year have been roundly criticised by traditional owners and legal experts. The laws are yet to take effect. Consultation to develop the regulatory framework to support the new laws began in March.