A parliamentary committee on Northern Australia has heard about the legacy of Rio Tinto’s Marandoo iron ore mine.
Rio Tinto appeared before the parliamentary committee on Friday to give evidence to an inquiry into the destruction of a 46,000 year-old shelter in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, which occurred in May last year.
In a submission to the inquiry dated July 2021, the mining company said that the destruction of the historically significant Indigenous rockshelters in the Jukkan Gorge ‘should not have occurred’.
Rio Tinto’s submission, signed by chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques, said it had offered an unreserved apology to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and that it was ‘determined to learn the lessons’ to prevent any future heritage sites of exceptional archaeological and cultural significance.
“We have long accepted the need to operate over and above strict compliance with the law and the formal agreements to which we are a party,” Rio Tinto’s submission read.
“For that reason, in addition to our legal responsibilities and obligations, we have also set our own internal standards and procedures to govern how we should responsibly manage and preserve cultural heritage.”
The mining company said the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters was a failing of Rio Tinto’s own internal standards, even though it had obtained legal approval to conduct activities that would ‘disturb’ the site under section 18 of Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.
Rio Tinto said that before applying for permission to undertake its works from the relevant authorities, it had a practice of engaging with Traditional owners to identify areas and specific sites ‘of high ethnographic, archaeological or cultural significance’. This consultation was done with a view to avoid work near these sites ‘if at all practicable’, the company said.
“There are inevitable trade-offs that need to be made between the benefits that mining brings to Traditional Owners and to the country as a whole, and the impacts that mining activity can have on both natural and cultural heritage,” Rio Tinto’s submission read.
“Managing such trade-offs is particularly important in a remote and relatively undisturbed region like the Pilbara, which has an exceptionally rich cultural heritage as a result of continuous human habitation extending over millennia.”
The submission continued, while measures to preserve whole sites in situ were possible, sometimes the impact of bulk mining activities like extracting iron ore were unavoidable.
“Where this is the case, ministerial consent must be obtained,” Rio Tinto said.
“We deeply regret that the processes to facilitate the preservation of such significant sites failed to prevent the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters.”
Friday’s hearing will canvas the status of Rio Tinto’s relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Traditional Owners and the legacy of their Marandoo iron ore mine.
Northern Australia Committee chair Warren Entsch said that the hearing was an important opportunity to review how Rio Tinto had taken up recommendations from an interim committee report about Juukan Gorge.
“[The Committee] seeks to discuss the Marandoo Mine with Rio Tinto and their perceptions of the Marandoo Act considering their reconciliatory approach to the destruction of Juukan Gorge,” Entsch said in a statement.
The chair added that he was eager to listen to Rio Tinto’s response to allegations by the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation that the artefacts were taken away by contractors of the Marandoo Mine and later disposed of.