Mining company Rio Tinto has released its second Communities and Social Performance Commitments Disclosure Report, outlining progress made against the commitments in the 2020 Review of the destruction of the Juukan Gorge sacred rock shelters in Western Australia.
The destruction of the ancient Aboriginal sites at the time was met with significant community, national and global outcry, subsequent investigations by state and federal governments, and the Chair stating he would not seek re-election to the board.
Since then the company has been working to strengthen its processes and approach to cultural heritage management by revising internal governance, policies, procedures, and practices. The report released Monday highlights the company’s efforts to improve transparency and provide updates on the work undertaken to enhance its Communities and Social Performance practices.
First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance co-chair, anthropologist and Ngalia man Kado Muir, told National Indigenous Times it was significant that the company had taken the time and effort to engage with Traditional Owners, establish high level Indigenous reference groups made up of eminent Indigenous Australians, and to undertake a comprehensive audit of its internal processes.
“This report is a major undertaking and, as with any internal review, will require careful analysis to match the claims to actual performance before any independent assessment of the claims can confidently be made,” he noted.
Mr Muir cited two key areas requiring further scrutiny, legacy Section 18 approvals and the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent.
“The company says it has consulted and engaged with Traditional Owners in relation to legacy Section 18 approvals. However, it is also in the public interest of accountability and transparency to know and understand how the company will progress with these Section 18 approvals,” he said.
“This is a legacy of sacred importance as Rio Tinto is allowed freedom to destroy Cultural Heritage sites by the Western Australian government under the old Aboriginal Heritage Act. The public needs to know what it plans to do.”
Mr Muir also noted Rio Tinto “claims it will proceed” with Free, Prior and Informed Consent in its dealings with Traditional Owners.
“However, this is in contradiction with (current) Aboriginal Cultural Heritage legislation in Western Australia which does not provide free prior and informed consent,” he said.
“Traditional Owners can never really offer Free Prior and Informed Consent when there is always the threat of State Government Ministerial intervention determining the outcome of any Cultural heritage matter.”
One of the achievements outlined in the report is the signing of a remedy agreement in November 2022 with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation to create the Juukan Gorge Legacy Foundation.
The Foundation, to be led and controlled by Traditional Owners, will support the cultural, social, educational and economic aspirations of the community. The company has also committed to providing financial support to the foundation to progress major cultural and social projects, including the creation of a new keeping place for the storage of important cultural materials.
Rio Tinto has also signed a co-management Heads of Agreement with the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, which sets out how they will work together in partnership on a co-management approach to mining activities on PKKP Country.
The company has also been working with Traditional Owners and Specialist Heritage on the re-excavation of Juukan Gorge 2, as part of the broader Juukan Gorge project.
The report highlights the company’s commitment to consulting with Traditional Owners in the Pilbara on its future development projects to protect cultural heritage.
Rio Tinto stated they have also increased the technical capability and resourcing of its Cultural Heritage teams to build understanding and delivery of cultural heritage management. The company has been increasing front-line leader presence at Traditional Owner consultations and surveys, ensuring Traditional Owner knowledge is factored into the way the company operates in an area. A substantive independent review of the company’s cultural heritage performance is currently underway at all its businesses, to redefine best practices for cultural heritage management in the organisation.
As part of the release of the second report, Global Chief Executive Jakob Stausholm noted Rio Tinto still has much work to do to win the trust of the community.
“In the two years since the tragic destruction of the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people in Western Australia, we have been changing the way we work in every part of our business,” he said.
“While we have made progress, we know it will take time to transform our culture and regain trust. But, together with the Indigenous peoples of the lands on which we operate, we are committed to ensuring cultural heritage is respected, valued and conserved for future generations.”
Rio Tinto said they would continue in their commitment to transparency and engagement in light of what occurred at Juukan Gorge.
Zak Kirkup and Giovanni Torre