Juukan Gorge inquiry urges national laws to protect sacred sites

Committee member and Yawuru man Senator Pat Dodson said Age Monday that First Nations people should have the right to say “no” to the destruction of their cultural heritage.

“This recommendation was made in light of the investigation and the sheer amount of damage and destruction suffered by Aboriginal heritage since colonization, but more recently during the boom in the west when Aborigines did had nothing to say and were completely excluded from the legislative framework in WA.

“It’s really about correcting the balance and recognizing the importance of Indigenous cultural heritage to this nation and to First Nations people, and it’s one of the few things that governments can do to try to repair the terrible injustices that have happened to indigenous peoples, ”he said. noted.

When asked if he was convinced the government would adopt the recommendations in the report, the Labor senator said: “I am not convinced this government will do anything, quite frankly. But I think they have to.

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge shelters in May 2020 sparked global condemnation, led to federal investigation and plunged Australia’s second-largest miner into crisis. An uprising by Rio Tinto’s major shareholders in Australia and Britain ultimately forced the resignation of the company’s chief executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, and two of his deputies – iron ore boss Chris Salisbury and the head of corporate affairs Simone Niven. Rio president Simon Thompson will step down in the coming months.

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Rio’s blasting of the site to make way for an expansion of the Brockman 4 iron mine was legally sanctioned, but went against the wishes of the traditional owners – the people of Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) – who told the federal investigation that they were unaware of the miner’s intention to destroy the site until it was too late to remove the explosive charges.

Rio Tinto apologized and acknowledged the failures of its engagement with the PKKP and the “missed opportunities” that could have prevented the debacle.

More than a year later, Rio continues to seek improvements, including the formation of an Indigenous Advisory Group to report gaps in Indigenous cultural heritage management protocols, ensure a better understanding of Indigenous culture and issues in the whole company, including the board of directors. level and provide a “clear path” to rebuild trust over time, the company said.

The PKKP Aboriginal Corporation said on Monday it would take time to review the report and its recommendations.

“Much continues to be written and said both about what happened before the destruction of the Juukan Caves and the invaluable artefacts they contain, and what should be done to prevent such behavior. does not happen again, ”he said.

“For the PKKP, actions, not words, will be the real test. “

The PKKP added that it would continue to work in good faith with the Rio leadership to ensure that the attitudes and processes that led to the disaster were replaced with “genuine partnership and respect”.

“Part of achieving this shared approach is a role for us in decision making, and we believe this can be achieved through co-management of mining activities on our lands,” the group said. “Simply put, this means early, meaningful and ongoing engagement at all stages of mining activity. “

The main traditional owners representing the Aboriginal Heritage Action Alliance welcomed the report and called on the WA government to immediately withdraw its indigenous heritage bill.

Clayton Lewis, a man from Nanda Widi with family and cultural ties to areas of the Midwest, Murchison and Gascoyne, Wash., Said the investigation shed light on what traditional owners have since known. a long time: the existing legislation “serves the developers, not the protection of our culture and our sacred sites”.

“The report should make the WA government bow its head in shame, highlighting its inability to listen to traditional owners and the lack of trust we have in the government to protect culture,” he said.

Rio Tinto’s new chief executive, Jakob Stausholm, said the company is working hard to restore trust with the PKKP and other traditional owners in all of its mining operations.

“We know it will take time and there will be challenges ahead,” he said. “But we are focused on improving our engagement with Indigenous Peoples and our host communities to better understand their priorities and concerns, minimize our impacts and responsibly manage Indigenous cultural heritage in and around our operations. . “

Across the country’s mining sector, the loss of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters and the federal investigation have drawn attention to the power imbalance underlying the relationship between mining companies and indigenous groups, including including the use of ‘gagging’ orders in land use contracts that prohibit landowners from publicly opposing projects on their ancestral lands, and outdated OA legislation that only offers applicants, and not traditional owners, the ability to request reviews of approval decisions.

The Minerals Council of Australia, a mining industry group, said its members deeply value their relationships with various First Nations landowners and have taken significant steps since the destruction of the Gorge to strengthen partnerships, practices of heritage protection, liability and oversight.

“The Juukan Gorge tragedy should never have happened,” said group general manager Tania Constable. “It must never happen again. “

The Minerals Council said it would review the committee’s final report.

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