Rio Tinto ‘let off hook’ over Aboriginal cave disaster

Rio Tinto ‘let off hook’ for destroying Aboriginal cave: Australian MPs call for tougher laws to protect sacred sites

RioTinto’s destruction of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal caves is a ‘wake up call’ for tougher laws to protect such sites, Australian politicians have said.

A parliamentary inquiry has described the mining giant’s decision to blow up the Juukan Gorge site as ‘inexcusable’ and an ‘affront’ .

However, some members of the inquiry team believe Rio Tinto has been ‘let off the hook’ for the destruction.

Sacred site: A parliamentary inquiry has described Rio Tinto’s decision to blow up the Juukan Gorge site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, (pictured) an ‘affront’ to all Australians

Warren Entsch, chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, said Rio’s actions almost 18 months ago caused ‘immeasurable cultural and spiritual loss, as well as profound grief’ for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.

Representatives from Aboriginal communities told the inquiry hundreds of similar sites have been destroyed by mining firms, including Rio Tinto and BHP, over the years.

The ‘Way Forward’ report said for too long mining companies have been able to exploit ‘grossly inadequate’ laws, including the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act, which allowed Rio to legally destroy the caves despite pleas from the PKKP people.

‘The disaster was a wake-up call that there are serious deficiencies in the protection of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural heritage,’ said Entsch.

The Western Australian government has already promised to replace the Act which allowed Rio to blow up the caves so it could then dig up an estimated £100million of iron ore at its Brockman 4 iron mine.

But much to the relief of mining companies, the inquiry has rejected pleas from the Aboriginal people to give them the power of veto over mining developments, which endanger sacred sites. 

The inquiry made eight recommendations, including to give ultimate responsibility to protect indigenous heritage to the federal government, rather than the states. 

It also said Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders must be involved in shaping legislation, and they must have more influence over mining projects to ensure they are not steam-rollered by mining companies and their legal teams.

A parliamentary inquiry in December found the iron ore giant to have gone against the wishes of traditional landowners despite knowing of the archaeological value. The ‘Never Again’ report said: ‘Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway.’

Two politicians said Rio had been ‘let off the hook’ and called for a judicial inquiry into whether criminal charges could be lodged. Senator Dean Smith and MP George Christensen described Rio’s actions leading up to the destruction as ‘disgraceful, negligent and wilful’.

Rio Tinto chief executive Jakob Stausholm said: ‘Rio Tinto is absolutely committed to listening, learning and showing greater care.’

A spokesman for the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation said. ‘For the PKKP, actions not words will be the true test’.