Rio Tinto should pay restitution for sacred Aboriginal caves blast

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Mining giant Rio Tinto Ltd should negotiate a restitution package with the Indigenous Australians affected by its destruction of two ancient rock shelters to expand an iron ore mine, an inquiry panel said on Wednesday.

The panel released an interim report in which it also recommended Rio Tinto ensure a full reconstruction of the rock shelters in the Pilbara region of Western Australia at its own expense, and laid out broader industry guidance that included reviewing consent practices and a moratorium on mining in the affected places.

The parliamentary inquiry into the legal destruction of the 46 000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelter in May held 13 public hearings, and received more than 140 submissions from miners, heritage specialists and Aboriginal and civil society groups.

The committee now aims to finish its report in the second half of 2021, once it has heard testimony from other states after COVID-19-related disruptions.

It has already sparked some industry change, with miners reviewing processes and their relationships with traditional owners of the land on which they operate.

But there is room for more, both on the part of Rio Tinto and the part of its peers, the inquiry found.

While castigating Rio for its failures, the inquiry said the company could yet “re-establish itself as a leader” if it followed best practice, particularly around consent.

Rio is expected to announce its new chief executive any day, after Jean-Sébastien Jacques and two other senior leaders agreed to step down in August due to the procedural failings it found led to the disaster and the way it was initially managed.

The inquiry did not spell out what, if any, financial compensation Rio Tinto should pay to the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. But the package should include keeping places where artefacts and other material could be stored and displayed for their benefit.

Even if Rio did have to pay some compensation, in the context of its $123 billion valuation, the amount was not likely to be material, said Glyn Lawcock of UBS.

Still, recommendations to overhaul legislation could result in delays to industry mine expansion plans in the years ahead, Lawcock added.

West Australia’s outdated Aboriginal heritage laws that favour development are under review and not expected to be considered by lawmakers until next year.

Until they are reformed, in the absence of clear consent of traditional owners, all miners should hold off new applications to damage Aboriginal heritage sites, the inquiry said.

Australia should also set down laws to ensure no ‘gag’ clauses can be stitched into agreements that restrict Indigenous people from objecting to development on their land, it said.

“The ultimate cause of the destruction of the caves was that insufficient value has been placed on the preservation of Indigenous culture and heritage — a living culture with a timeless heritage,” the inquiry found. “That must change.”

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