Rio Tinto has apologized after destroying a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site in Western Australia to expand its Brockman 4 iron ore mine. The site, in Juukan Gorge, featured ancient rock shelters that contained artifacts indicating tens of thousands of years of continuous human occupation.
The mining giant had obtained legal permission for the blast and said it believed it had consent from the traditional owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people. However, the PKKP said they were not aware of the 24 May blast until 15 May.
Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury released the following statement:
“We pay our respects to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP), and we are sorry for the distress we have caused. Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto, having worked together for many years.
“We have operated on PKKP country under a comprehensive and mutually agreed Participation Agreement since 2011.
“At Juukan, in partnership with the PKKP, we followed a heritage approval process for more than 10 years. In 2014 we performed a large-scale exercise in the Juukan area to preserve significant cultural heritage artefacts, recovering approximately 7,000 objects.
“We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership. As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area.
“From a broader perspective, as we already work within all existing frameworks, we will launch a comprehensive review of our heritage approach, engaging Traditional Owners to help identify, understand and recommend ways to improve the process.
“Three decades ago we were the first mining company to recognise native title. Today we also recognise that a review is needed in relation to the management of heritage in Western Australia more broadly, and we will advocate where relevant for legislative reform.
“The mining industry supports all Australians by providing jobs, supporting small business, and paying taxes and royalties. We remain committed to doing so in a way that provides economic development opportunities and facilitates the preservation and sharing of traditional culture.
“As a company with strong ties and a long history of partnership with Indigenous Australians we are committed to updating our practices and working together so that we can co-exist for mutual benefit.”