Aboriginal group says committed to improving ties with Rio a year after cave disaster


MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The Aboriginal group whose sacred rock shelters Rio Tinto destroyed in Western Australia last year for an iron ore mine said it was committed to improving its relationship with the miner to ensure a similar disaster never happens again.

Rio Tinto destroyed 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia in May 2020 against the wishes of the traditional owners, causing a public outcry. The rock shelters showed among the oldest evidence of continual human habitation.

Burchell Hayes, a director at the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKP), said the destruction has devastated his people even as they worked to better ties with the world’s top miner of iron ore.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done. We have had to reset the relationship,” he said.

“I have always said that we are committed to building that relationship. We are not opposed to mining, however we want to ensure that we are around the table when it comes to making decisions about impact on our country. We are not going to let this happen again.”

The incident ultimately cost Rio’s boss, chair and two senior executives their jobs. A majority of Rio Tinto’s shareholders rejected the global miner’s executive pay packages earlier this month, in a backlash over the destruction.

Hayes said traditional owners wanted a seat at the table during mine planning to ensure they were able to protect cultural heritage sites as part of a co-management model.

One finding of an Australian inquiry into the incident was that Rio had four potential mine plans, which would not all have impacted the Juukan rock shelters, but that it did not share these alternative options with traditional owner groups.

Hayes said that no compensation could ever make up for the destruction of the shelters.

“It’s proof that our ancestors occupied this area for 46,000 years…that opportunity was taken away from us when it came to sharing our culture, our heritage and the significance of this site to our future generations.”

Among the evidence excavated from the rock shelter prior to its destruction was a 4,000 year-old plaited hair belt that showed genetic links to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples of today.

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Ana Nicolaci da Costa)

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