"Deeply troubled" traditional owners in the western Pilbara have had their worst fears confirmed after Rio Tinto detonated explosives near culturally significant sites dating back more than 46,000 years.
A Rio Tinto spokesperson said blasting in Juukan Gorge occurred over the weekend, and on Tuesday the company confirmed its ancient rock shelters were destroyed.
"[Rio Tinto] has, where practicable, modified its operations to avoid heritage impacts and to protect places of cultural significance to the group."
Puutu Kunti Kurrama (PKK) traditional owners said the mining giant had detonated charges in an area of the Juukan Gorge, about 60 kilometres north-west of Tom Price, and feared two ancient, deep time rock shelters would be "decimated" in the blasts.
"Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land," said John Ashburton, chair of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee.
Rio Tinto received permission to conduct the blasts in 2013 under Section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Mr Ashburton said PKK traditional owners were frustrated by a system which they say does not consider new, important information once the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs gives consent under Section 18.
"We recognise that Rio Tinto has complied with its legal obligations, but we are gravely concerned at the inflexibility of the regulatory system," Mr Ashburton said.
Rio's spokesperson said the company had a long-standing relationship with the PKK people, and had been working together in relation to the Juukan area for 17 years.
In a statement, WA Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, said he was not aware of the blast or concerns prior to the event.
Traditional owners devastated by the loss of the 46,000-year-old cultural site said they only found out about the mining blasts by accident.
Burchell Hayes, a Puutu Kunti Kurruma traditional owner, said the group was told the site would be impacted after it asked to visit for upcoming NAIDOC week celebrations.
"While we would like to think we have got a good relationship with Rio Tinto, I think there is area for improvement and one of those is communication between the traditional owners and Rio Tinto," he said.
Mr Hayes said the blasting activity was just 11 metres from the two rock shelters.
Mr Hayes said the community felt sorrow and sadness over the lost heritage.
"That site, for us, that's where our ancestors were occupying their traditional land," he said.
"From generation to generation stories have been passed down to us around that occupation.
"Even going through and doing excavations in those areas; to find the plaited hair and the artefacts and how they have been dated back to over 46,000 years — it's something we will always remember."
Mr Hayes said the destruction of the ancient sites would impact future generations most.
"Traditionally we hand that [heritage] down to the next generation, but in this case we won't have anything to show the next generation and to tell them stories about what has happened there and what's been passed down from our ancestors," he said.
During an excavation in 2014, archaeologist Dr Michael Slack found several "staggering" artefacts including grinding and pounding stones, which were believed to be the earliest use of grindstone technology in Western Australia.
The research revealed sites of "high archaeological significance", but due to what PKK traditional owners have described as a "rigid regulatory system" the decision was not able to be turned around.
Dr Slack said he was surprised when he heard the news of Rio Tinto's blast at the site.
He said plaited hair dating back 4,000 years was also recovered, believed to be part of a hair belt worn by traditional owners, and a kangaroo leg bone dating back 28,000 years which had been sharpened into a pointed tool — the oldest examples of bone technology found in Australia.
The findings from Dr Slack and the team had dated human occupation in the region back more than four times what was originally understood.
"What we found were some really important discoveries," he said.
"We found early backed artefacts which were a little stone tool we think were halved into knives, and they appear in this site up to 10,000 years earlier than in other sites.
"This site was something special. It was a massive cave, it had such a rich cultural deposit, such an old occupation. And so significant in that respect that it's one of those sites you only excavate once or twice in your career.
The WA Aboriginal Heritage Act (1972) is currently under review with draft legislation expected to be released for public comment.
The Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill will be introduced into the WA Parliament for consideration this year.
The ABC understand Section 18 notices will no longer exist under the proposed changes.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said the new heritage legislation would focus on mutual agreement between traditional owners and proponents.
"It will … include a process to consider new information that may come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the agreements by mutual consent," he said.
"The legislation will also provide options for appeal should either party not be compliant with the agreement."
Dr Slack said examples such as Juukan Gorge proved the legislation needed to change.
"Everyone in this situation would take pause and think 'we could do better' in terms of the process," he said.
"Hopefully we can rectify the situation in revised legislation, and there should be a process where things are only destroyed with full knowledge and that we know the results of all these excavations in advance of all these consents 'to destroy' being approved.
"This is not an unusual situation, it's just unusual that the site has proven to be so importantly archaeologically and culturally as well."
The destruction of those sites would have made way for a railway to service its new $1.5 billion Eliwana mine development.
After outcry from traditional owners about an administrative error with the Act, the Federal Government reviewed the decision and FMG later amended its proposal to continue development without impacting the cultural sites.
Mr Ashburton said the PKK people were now working with Rio Tinto to safeguard the remaining rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge.
Mr Hayes said changes to the Aboriginal Heritage Act were long overdue to better protect Aboriginal sites, and he urged other traditional owners to take another look at their own agreements.
"Our experience — it's something that we have learned from and we didn't believe that we would ever be in this position," he said.
"I would encourage other traditional owners to ensure that their mining proponents, whoever is doing any mining activity on their country, that they understand what they are getting themselves into and do everything they possibly can to protect their sacred sites."
Secret recording: Rio Tinto 'not sorry' for cave blast
Joe Aston - 15. June 2020
Going by the global headlines, you'd think Rio Tinto had expressed deep remorse for destroying a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site over the protests of its traditional owners. But you would be wrong.
One of Rio Tinto's most senior executives told employees on Thursday that the company is not sorry for blowing up the Juukan Gorge caves, only for the distress caused by doing so.
Rio Tinto's iron ore boss Chris Salisbury has vowed to do better. AAP
In an internal "town hall" meeting held on Wednesday evening (a recording of which we've obtained), Rio's iron ore boss
Chris Salisbury faced a staff member's complaint that "people have seen how we've positioned our response with an apology for the distress caused, not for doing the wrong thing".
Answering, Salisbury gave a lengthy explanation of the events leading to the detonation of the sacred Aboriginal site last month and clarified that "that's why we haven't apologised for the event itself,
per se, but apologised for the distress the event caused".
Salisbury also referred to the destruction of the caves as "quite galling to me as well, because we are recognised … as one of the leading resources companies in this field".
He also assured staff that Rio retains the muted backing of "political leaders of both sides".
"I’ve engaged with lots and lots of stakeholders and … quietly, there is still support for us out there."
Salisbury's remarks are eerily evocative of
Brian Hartzer comforting his senior team in November that “we don’t need to overcook this” because Westpac, which had been sending money to the Philippines for a known paedophile, was "not an Enron". Hartzer at least had the decency to resign a few hours later.
The staff meeting was chaired by Rio's PR and
community relations boss , who is working from Sydney with the group's chief executive Simone Niven Jean-Sébastien Jacques. Niven confirmed that Jacques himself had met with Reconciliation Australia, which last week revoked its endorsement of Rio Tinto and suspended the company from its Reconciliation Action Plan program.
After three weeks of astonishing silence throughout the controversy, Jacques finally put his name to a contrite public statement on Friday – only after the initiation of a Senate inquiry into Rio's actions.
The confrontational tone of questions posed to Salisbury and Niven – and the fact a recording of the internal briefing has been leaked to
The Australian Financial Review – suggest that Rio employees are appalled by the company’s unapologetic stance on the Juukan Gorge incident.
"How does this change Rio Tinto's employee value proposition?" one staffer asked, given "the incident goes against my own personal and professional values".
"How you think about values is clearly an individual choice," Niven responded. "It is a personal choice and you need to weigh up yourself around how you see the values dimension. I guess from my perspective, you think about it from a company perspective. I've been with this company for 12 years. I wouldn't work for Rio if I didn’t believe in it."
It's unclear what half of that meant, but last year Rio Tinto paid Niven $3.23 million. No wonder she believes in it.
has helmed The Australian Financial Review's Rear Window column since 2012. He is based in Los Angeles. Connect with Joe on Joe Aston Facebook and Twitter. Email Joe at
Australian, Anglo-American gutter press speaks of "apololgy". What apology?
"On Saturday, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation rejected Rio’s suggestion its representatives had failed to make clear concerns about preserving the site during years of consultation between the two parties" This desecration and the appalling incompetence and disregard for Black perspectives is inexcusable. If Rio Tinto were sooooo commited to equity and partnership they WOULD NOT need to be told. This destruction goes well beyond simply failing to listen to the Cultural Authorities, this is a crime against humanity itself. Sorry? Sorry goes no where close - your Mining Activities must be outlawed on the basis of gross negligence.
Rio Tinto apologises to traditional owners after blasting 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site
Mining giant detonated explosives at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, destroying two ancient rock shelters
By Australian Associated Press -
31. May 2020 Rio Tinto apologies for destroying Indigenous site 46,000 years old. Photograph: PKKP Aboriginal Corporation/AFP/Getty Images
Mining giant Rio Tinto has apologised to traditional owners in Western Australia’s north after
destroying a significant Indigenous site dating back 46,000 years, saying it is urgently reviewing plans for other sites in the area.
Rio detonated explosives in a part of the Juukan Gorge last Sunday, destroying two ancient rock shelters, which has devastated the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.
The mining giant was granted approval for work at the Brockman 4 iron ore project in 2013, but subsequent archaeological excavation revealed ancient artefacts including grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4000-year-old braided hair.
“We are sorry for the distress we have caused,”
Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said in a statement on Sunday.
“Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto, having worked together for many years.
“We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership.
“As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area.”
On Saturday, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation rejected Rio’s suggestion its representatives had failed to make clear concerns about preserving the site during years of consultation between the two parties.
Spokesman Burchell Hayes labelled the claim outrageous, saying Rio was told in October about the significance of the rock shelters and the company replied it had no plans to extend the Brockman 4 mine.
“The high significance of the site was further relayed to Rio Tinto by PKKPAC as recently as March,” Hayes said.
He said Rio did not advise of its intention to blast the area and the corporation “only found out by default on 15 May when we sought access to the area for NAIDOC Week in July”.
WA Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt has said he was unaware of the blast or concerns beforehand.
The state government hopes to pass its new Aboriginal cultural heritage bill this year, although Covid-19 has delayed the consultation process.
“It will provide for agreements between traditional owners and proponents to include a process to consider new information that may come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the agreements by mutual consent,” Wyatt said.
“The legislation will also provide options for appeal.”
Peter Stone, Unesco’s chair in cultural property protection and peace, said the archaeological destruction at Juukan Gorge was among the worst seen in recent history, likening it to the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas statues in Afghanistan and Isis annihilating sites in the Syrian city of Palmyra.
Rio said it was committed to updating its practices.
Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian The high court has rejected Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest’s bid to appeal a federal court decision that found the Yindjibarndi traditional owners held exclusive native title rights to land on which his company, Fortescue Metals, owns an iron ore mine.
Mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest may have to pay millions in compensation to Yindjibarndi traditional owners in the Pilbara, after the high court dismissed his bid to appeal a federal court decision that they held exclusive native title rights to the area.
In 2017, the federal court granted Yindjibarndi native title under exclusive possession to 2,700 square kilometres of land in the Pilbara, including the site of Forrest’s Solomon Hub iron ore mine, worth billions of dollars.
It is now expected that FMG will have to negotiate a land use agreement with traditional owners, or pay millions in compensation.
Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation lawyer George Irvine told Guardian Australia the traditional owners were jubilant at today’s decision, which marked the end of a long and bitter legal battle.
Ngaarda Media Pilbara (@ngaarda)
Yindjibarndi waiting with bated breathe for High Court decision.
@benwyatt @NITV @KenWyattMP pic.twitter.com/F0pKzVe3dl May 29, 2020
Irvine said they were still open to negotiating “in good faith” with FMG on a settlement “but it depends on them”.
“No greater effort could have been made to negotiate with FMG,” he said. “But, in the absence of any negotiations, the only legal recourse is a claim for compensation and the Yindjibarndi will do that. They have a mining company turning their country upside down.
“FMG are currently operating on country without consent.”
Photograph: John W Banagan/Getty Images Karijini National Park, W.A near the Yindjibarni claim area
Forrest has previously said he was opposed to a compensation deal, describing it as “mining welfare”.
In a statement released after the decision, FMG said it “reconfirms its earlier advice that the decision of the federal court has no impact on its current or future operations or mining tenure at the Solomon Hub, and the company does not anticipate any material financial impact to the business as a result of the decision of the full federal court”.
The Fortescue chief executive, Elizabeth Gaines, said: “Fortescue has a strong history of working with our Traditional Custodians and Native Title Partners across the Pilbara, delivering Native Title royalties, training and assistance to over 1,600 Aboriginal people and over A$2.5bn in contracts to Aboriginal businesses.
“We accept, and have always accepted, the Yindjibarndi people’s non-exclusive native title rights and interests over the relevant area. While we are disappointed with the outcome, as we believe this is an important point of law regarding the test for exclusive possession with potential implications for a range of industries, we accept the high court’s decision.
“We remain open to negotiating a land access agreement to the benefit of all Yindjibarndi people on similar terms to the agreements Fortescue has in place with other native title groups in the region.”
But Irvine said this point was not what the traditional owners wanted, saying they want to strike a deal for Yindjibarni based on their exclusive possession rights, not based on the offers FMG has made to other traditional owners groups in the Pilbara.
Rio Tinto blasting of Jukkan Gorge Indigenous site prompts call for heritage protections
Toby Hussey, Karen Michelmore and Holly Ferguson - 28. May 2020
Jukkan Gorge in 2013, left, and 2020. (Supplied: Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation, composite ABC News)
There are mounting calls for changes to the approvals process for works likely to affect Aboriginal heritage sites
after Rio Tinto destroyed two ancient rock caves at Juukan Gorge, north-west of Tom Price in the Pilbara last weekend.
National Native Title Council chief executive Jamie Lowe said state legislation needed immediate reform.
"This has been happening forever really [in] Australia as we know it," he said.
"More power and more rights need to be given to Aboriginal people."
Rio Tinto received approval for the work from the Barnett government in 2013 under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Section 18 allows landowners to apply for an exemption to laws that prohibit works if they're likely to affect Aboriginal sites.
Member for the Mining and Pastoral region Robin Chapple at the signing of the World Heritage listing nomination agreement. (ABC North West: Sonia Feng)
Landowners send a notice for consent to the Aboriginal Cultural Material Committee, which recommends to the Aboriginal Affairs Minister whether approval should be granted.
In the wake of this week's news, WA Mining and Pastoral Region MP Robin Chapple said Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt should review all approved Section 18 notices.
He said the approvals process had been "a dog's breakfast" for 30 years.
"We've got to fix this," he said.
"It doesn't need an amendment to the Act to resolve this — it just needs ensuring the [ACMC] do their job as they're required to do, and that the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs actually takes on his role as the Minister and … protect[s] Aboriginal cultural material.
"It's not just this Minister: it's the ministers of every single government right back to the 1990s."
'People would not contemplate destroying those buildings'
News of the caves' destruction caused immediate community backlash, including from Puutu Kunti Kurruma traditional owner Burchell Hayes, whose ancestors lived in the region.
Mr Hayes said it would impact education of future generations, and wanted the State Government to ensure other at-risk sites don't come to the same fate.
Burchell Hayes said his people were devastated the lessons from the Jukkan Gorge site can never be passed onto future generations. (ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said it was a national issue, calling out what she said was a bias in heritage laws.
"I went and had a look at both our national and state heritage lists … the state list goes back to the 1830s and protects places like the Round House [in Fremantle]," she said.
"People would not contemplate destroying those buildings and yet this site, which is 46,000 years old, is destroyed with inadequate appeal rights and not a comment from the State or Federal governments or any intention to stop it happening."
Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Simon Hawkins said the incident was evidence Aboriginal heritage wasn't "treated the same as colonial heritage".
WA Treasurer Ben Wyatt acknowledged the disappointment within the Aboriginal community. (ABC News: Marcus Alborn)
Mr Hawkins said the weekend's blasting highlights "the crucial need to improve current legislation around Aboriginal heritage".
"Both state-sanctioned and illegal destruction of sites significant to Aboriginal people is a regular occurrence throughout WA," he said.
He said changing the Aboriginal Heritage Act to provide greater protections for heritage sites could "give a powerful message to the Western Australian community of the significance of Aboriginal heritage as the original and irreplaceable part of Western Australia's collective cultural heritage."
Rio Tinto takes cultural heritage
On Wednesday, Rio Tinto chief executive Chris Salisbury said the company took cultural heritage "very seriously" and had secured the required approvals before its works in Juukan Gorge.
A company statement said it would continue to work with the Puutu Kunti Kurruma and Pinikura people, traditional owner groups, government and industry on reform to the Aboriginal Heritage Act.
Mr Wyatt acknowledged the disappointment within the Aboriginal community.
"This was a significant site, not just for Aboriginal people but I suspect for the archaeological history of Australia," he said.
The State Government is currently reviewing the Aboriginal Heritage Act, which Mr Wyatt said he hoped would result in more opportunities for community input in future Section 18 approvals.
"What we're hoping to do with our amendments is to ensure that new information can also be part of the process," he said.
"Under the Act … there's no timeframe in which an approval expires, and that's I suspect one of the weaknesses we've seen here."
How the LameStream Media and the Mining Industry describe it, and reveal that o
f 463 requests made by mining companies since mid-2010, none have been refused, the state’s government said in May. The Austalian settler-regime is clearly complicit. A miner blew up ancient human history, now an industry may pay
Bloomberg News | June 30, 2020
Image courtesy of ) Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation.
Scraping away delicately at the reddish-brown earth of northwestern Australia’s vast Pilbara region, a team of archaeologists uncovered a record of life dating back more 40,000 years. Buried in natural shelters at the base of a cliff were thousands of stone and wooden tools, the sharpened fibula bone of a kangaroo and braided strands of hair.
They worked quickly inside the Juukan Gorge rock shelters to recover the artefacts — and needed to. The team was a salvage squad, sent in with a tight deadline to excavate a site in the path of an encroaching iron ore mine and approved for destruction.
Blasts carried out in late May by Rio Tinto Group flattened the features in the central Hamersley Range, more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) northeast of Perth. Now the fallout is mounting for the London-based producer, and new risks are being posed to an iron ore sector that produces Australia’s top export, forecast to generate earnings of A$100 billion ($69 billion) in the year ended June 30.
There’s now the prospect of regulatory changes that could introduce additional costs, and make it harder to win approvals to expand existing sites or to construct new operations. Aboriginal Australians, legislators and investors managing trillions of dollars are also united in pressing Rio and its rivals to improve their relationships with Indigenous communities.
“Industry-wide social license to operate will be under increasing scrutiny and this could have bearing on costs if it requires changes to mine plans, and the approvals process both here and offshore,” said Camille Simeon, a Sydney-based investment manager for Aberdeen Standard Investments, which holds Rio shares and manages assets worth about $645 billion.
“We want the mining companies we invest in to be companies that everyone trusts”
Nick Stansbury, head of commodity research at Legal & General Investment Management
The 196,000-square mile Pilbara is Australia’s most valuable iron ore region — hosting a network of major mines that act as a profit engine for companies including Rio, BHP Group and billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group Ltd. It’s also home to Indigenous communities that rank among the nation’s most disadvantaged, an imbalance that’s coming into sharper focus amid a wider investor drive for improved corporate responsibility.
“We’ve seen this with climate, and we’re in the situation now with these emerging issues of First Nations people and First Nations rights,” said Kara Keys, an investment committee member at Australia’s Construction & Building Unions Superannuation fund, which manages about A$56 billion, and a descendant of the Yiman and Gangulu peoples of central Queensland. “The climate debate was a peripheral issue 10 years ago and what we’ve seen is that it’s now a key issue.”
There’s likely to be far more scrutiny of mining and energy projects that require cooperation with Indigenous communities, she said. That’s an issue not only for Australia, but for other key resources producing nations including Canada and the U.S.
“We want the mining companies we invest in to be companies that everyone trusts,” said Nick Stansbury, head of commodity research at Legal & General Investment Management, which manages more than 1.2 trillion pounds ($1.5 trillion) of assets, including Rio shares.
Rio’s Chief Executive Officer Jean-Sebastien Jacques
has apologized for distress caused to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation, the traditional users of the Juukan Gorge sites, and a board-led internal review aims to issue a public report by October. Investors have held a series of meetings with the company’s leadership, including Chairman Simon Thompson, Rio said in a statement.
The PKKP, along with four other native title groups in the Pilbara, signed agreements with Rio in 2011 offering support for existing and future iron ore operations. Rio’s detonations in the Pilbara were also legal, authorized by a Western Australia government process used to rule on cases where impacts on Aboriginal sites are deemed unavoidable.
Revised laws are expected to bolster protections, and give communities rights to appeal.
Of 463 requests made by mining companies since mid-2010, none have been refused, the state’s government said in May.
“There are places that are of outstanding importance that really should be protected,” said Fiona Hook, managing director of heritage consultancy Archae-aus and an archaeologist who has worked in the Pilbara region, for clients including Rio Tinto and BHP. “Juukan Gorge is one of those that should have been protected and the legislative process failed.”
Consent for Rio to disturb the area was granted in 2013, before excavations the following year uncovered more evidence of the area’s historical significance. Criticism from both investors, and the PKKP, has focused on whether the company should have halted plans after the heritage value became known. BHP has agreed to carry out new consultation on areas at risk of disturbance at its South Flank development.
All miners need to consider “their existing and future relationships with Indigenous communities,” said Adam Matthews, director of ethics and engagement at the Church of England Pensions Board, who has raised concerns with Rio’s chairman.
Of 463 requests made by mining companies since mid-2010, none have been refused, the state’s government said in May
Approaches to community relations and human rights will shape investment decisions, according to Claudia Kruse, managing director for global responsible investment and governance at APG Asset Management NV, which manages more than 500 billion euro ($565 billion) in pension money. “Company performance on social issues matters,” Kruse said.
The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, which invests about A$650 million on behalf of its members, has asked fund managers to sell its small position in Rio shares as a result of the Juukan Gorge blasts.