On Friday, May 15, the traditional owners of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Hamersley Range put in a request with Rio Tinto: could they access the site of two 46,000-year-old rock shelters for their upcoming NAIDOC Week celebrations?
The answer that came back from the mining giant was no. The site, Rio told them, was laden with explosives and about to be destroyed to make way for a major expansion of an iron ore mine nearby.
The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation – whose lands cover 10,000 square kilometres of the Pilbara – say they were left in disbelief. At once they implored Rio to call off the blasting or at least protect the shelters. They phoned the WA government, then appealed to the federal government. It seemed little could be done.
Rio delayed the detonation and brought in experts to assess. But as the PKKP would soon be told, it was all too late. The charges could no longer be safely removed. Left unfired, they would be dangerous. And on May 24, the site was reduced to rubble.
“We know from archaeological studies that it is one of the earliest occupied locations, not only in the western Hamersley Plateau, but also in the Pilbara and nationally,” the PKKP said the next day. “Losing these rock shelters is a devastating blow.”
In the week and a half that followed, two photos of the site have been seen around the world. The first one shows the red rock caves, a curved hilltop above them. Their sloping entrances are covered in greenery of small trees and scrub that appear nearly golden in the sunlight.
The second is of the same scene, shockingly altered. The caves are naked, their red rocks laid bare. Trees and scrub have been torn up, the hilltop above has been flattened and furrowed. Workmen in hard hats and high-vis stand atop it, revealing the scale of the caves destroyed.
There are other pictures, however, that have not been seen for cultural reasons: of priceless objects retrieved in the final “salvage” dig inside the shelters. Grinding and pounding stones, representing the earliest use of grindstones in the Pilbara. A marsupial bone dating back 28,000 years which had been sharpened and turned into a pointed tool. And a piece of a 4000-year-old plaited “hair belt” with DNA linking it to today’s PKKP people.
Such findings have placed the shelters among the most significant archaeological research sites in Australia, and one of the earliest – if not the earliest – in the upland Pilbara.
“Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land,” PKKP Land Committee chair John Ashburton said.
The past week has been one of the worst in memory for Rio Tinto, the second-largest mining giant on the ASX. Its investors are demanding explanations, the federal government is flagging urgent reviews of heritage protection laws, the internet is aflame with anger and disbelief. The reputation of the company – widely considered to have been an industry leader on matters of cultural heritage and Indigenous affairs – has taken a battering.
‘The corporation has been direct and explicit in the significance of these rock shelters … For Rio Tinto to suggest otherwise is incorrect.’
Burchell Hayes, Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation
“It’s incomprehensible,” federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Ken Wyatt said. “Our culture is so important, it is so powerful and it is so important in passing down our stories and history between generations.”
“Everyone is shocked,” Australian Council of Superannuation Investors chief executive Louise Davidson said.
“The first question investors are asking Rio is ‘How did this happen?’. The second is ‘What are they doing to ensure something similar never happens again?’.”
There is no dispute about the legality of Rio’s actions at the site. The miner had secured all required legal approvals way back in 2013 to blast the part of Juukan Gorge which sat on the edge of the company’s Brockman 4 iron ore mine and had been deemed too close to the ore body to avoid in the expansion.
Nor was there any dispute about the site’s significance. In the process of pursuing ministerial consent, Rio had consulted the traditional owners and carried out archaeological and cultural surveys over 10 years to identify places of significance, before finally receiving full legal approval in 2013 on the condition further digs were conducted.
But a 2014 salvage mission intended to fulfil Rio’s final cultural obligation unearthed finds of a significance that exceeded all expectations. In close collaboration with the PKKP, their work then turned to retrieving more than 7000 artefacts and putting them into storage to ensure their preservation.
What is being disputed, as the fallout continues, is whether Rio Tinto was aware of requests from PKKP for the significant site to be preserved and not destroyed following the discovery of the artefacts.
“We are sorry that the recently expressed concerns of the PKKP did not arise through the engagements that have taken place over many years under the agreement that governs our operations on their country,” Rio Tinto said.
Chris Salisbury, Rio’s iron ore chief, said the company “thought we had a shared understanding with the PKKP about the future of that site”.
“Clearly there was a misunderstanding,” he told the ABC on Friday, as the public pressure showed no signs of abating. The miner has apologised to the traditional owners, committed to an internal review and said it would seek to repair its relationship with the PKKP.
The PKKP, however, reject outright the claim that their position was not known.
Spokesman Burchell Hayes said the Aboriginal corporation had relayed the significance of the site to the company “on numerous occasions since 2013”, including a report by Scarp Archaeology in 2015 and a documentary funded by Rio Tinto the same year, in which traditional owners gave interviews about the gorge’s significance.
Hayes said the corporation only learned of the miner’s plans by chance on May 15, when it applied for permission to access the sites for NAIDOC Week.
“At all times the PKKPAC has been direct and explicit in the archaeological and ethnographic significance of these rock shelters and the importance that they be preserved,” Hayes said. “For Rio Tinto to suggest otherwise is incorrect. We believe Rio Tinto’s outrageous statement is a bid to minimise the adverse public reaction.”
‘There is a big difference between acting legally and acting ethically.’
Susheela Peres da Costa, proxy advisory firm Regnan
In essence, both parties claim to have been blindsided. The questions that now remain are questions of governance and process, with prominent shareholders looking for answers.
One of Rio’s top investors, Aberdeen Standard, this week said the site’s destruction was deeply concerning and called into question the adequacy of Rio’s governance, community engagement and significant-site policies.
“We are really saddened and deeply concerned about what happened,” Aberdeen investment manager Camille Simeon said.
“It raises the question around doing what is legal versus doing what is right. It does appear to have been legal but is it the right thing to do, to destroy something with such huge cultural significance?”
Large shareholders and the firms that advise them on corporate ESG (environmental, social, governance) issues say the disconnect between Rio and the traditional owners points to the need to significantly improve community engagement.
More broadly, they say, the disaster speaks to the biggest emerging issue in the corporate governance world: that governance goes beyond simply meeting the minimum standard of the law.
“There is a big difference between acting legally and acting ethically,” says Susheela Peres da Costa of leading proxy advisory firm Regnan. “And acting legally in Australia often doesn’t go far enough.”
Legally, the saga has triggered renewed scrutiny of WA’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, which the Morrison government this week condemned as outdated and “inadequate”. In particular, focus has centred on Section 18, under which companies obtain ministerial consent to destroy or alter heritage sites but which offers no right of review for landowners after a decision is reached. Such was the case following Rio’s approval in 2013 and the subsequent 2014 archaeological findings.
“It is clear, in this instance, that the state legislation has failed,” Wyatt said. “That is what we need to look into.”
Rio Tinto this week committed to revisit its plans for all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area and launch a comprehensive review of its heritage approach, with the involvement of traditional owners, to identify problems and recommend improvements.
A long-serving senior manager with Rio Tinto, who asked not to be identified, told The Age and Sydney Morning Herald his first reaction upon hearing of the destruction was “guilt followed by anger”.
“Now I feel so sorry for the Indigenous employees [who] need to toe the company line and not internally criticise the company whilst copping criticism at home … reading what’s in the news and battling with their own moral conscience,” he said.
The fact that the consequences of proceeding with the blast were not red-flagged and stopped during a risk-assessment process in light of the site’s significance was “beyond belief”, he said.
“One of the major areas that will always halt a project or expansion is reputational,” he said. “Was the price of the ore considered a lower-risk value than the blast’s reputational consequences?”
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Emma Young covers breaking news with a focus on science and environment, health and social justice for WAtoday.
Business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.