Rio Tinto claims to have no records of giving OK to dump Aboriginal artefacts

Rio Tinto indigenous relations chief adviser Brad Welsh said the company had not been able to put together a complete picture of what happened, given the passage of time and without knowing if the company’s historical records remained complete.

Mr Welsh said other materials at the university may have been thrown out in 1997 during the analysis process.

He said Kinhill Engineers – which had been contracted by now-Rio subsidiary Hamersley Iron to salvage cultural materials before the mine was built – and the university had completed analysis of the material that year and separated it into three categories.

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“Material to be returned to Hamersley Iron, material to be taken to the Australian National University which was later returned to Hamersley Iron, and material to be disposed of,” Mr Welsh said.

“We have not been able to conclusively determine the potential cultural or archaeological value of what was discarded, and we acknowledge that the loss to Eastern Guruma people feel in respect of this.

“We have not found any evidence that Rio Tinto directed any disposal of artefacts … however we do recognise that decisions made on the management of these materials may not have adequately considered archeological and cultural values in the analysis completed.”

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Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation non-member director Tony Bevan said it was disappointed with some of the comments made by Rio during the hearing and the accuracy.

The corporation had submitted that Rio accepted a proposal from Kinhill in 1997 to discard material that had not yet been analysed or sorted.

Mr Bevan said a judicial inquiry into the history of approvals and cultural heritage treatment by mining companies in WA would be warranted.

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Wintawari says the dumping of cultural material at the Darwin tip appears to have related to 20 of the 28 Marandoo sites that were salvaged.

The corporation is of the view the destruction of cultural material had been kept secret from Eastern Guruma people for 25 years until its investigations.

Rio Tinto still holds 500 sample bags from the salvage operation which include artefacts, charcoal samples, soil samples, and remains.

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The Marandoo mine opened in 1994 and is located on a patch of excluded land in the middle of Karijini National Park, merely a few kilometres from the second-tallest mountain in WA.

Ms Parker said the company was working with the Eastern Guruma people and the WA government to modernise its agreement around Marandoo.

“We certainly believe the traditional owners need to be at the heart of the agreement-making process,” she said.

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“And it’s very clear for the lengths of time we have been working on traditional owner land that the social benefit hasn’t come through and we want to make sure that is a significant change.”

Rio says it is committed to reviewing all its Pilbara agreements with traditional owners for its 16 mines.

The company has removed 54 million tonnes of iron ore – worth about $US8 billion at Friday’s price of $US150 a tonne – from its reserves as it reviews the treatment of thousands of heritage sites at its Pilbara operations.

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Juukan negotiations continue

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in May last year – which held evidence of human occupation dating back 46,000 years – sparked the inquiry where the Marandoo artefact disposal emerged.

The blast sparked global condemnation and cost the job of Rio’s former chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two of his deputies.

Juukan Gorge before the explosions.Credit:PKKP Aboriginal Corporation

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Ms Parker said Rio was still working with traditional owners the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people to restore the shelters.

She said an engineering firm had been engaged to figure out how to take the overburden off the shelters and to ensure what was left was structurally safe.

“That work is ongoing and has PKKP members on site whilst we do the work,” Ms Parker said.

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Further negotiations between Rio and the PKKP around remuneration are ongoing.

New WA heritage draft bill remains divisive

Yawuru man and WA Senator Patrick Dodson grilled Ms Parker during the inquiry on Friday about whether relevant legislation should let Aboriginal people decide whether mining went ahead.

“Given the history and the travesty of justice and the lack of morality in some of these dealings, and the thousands and thousands of sites that have been destroyed, and the lands that have been destroyed without any real recognition of the culture or the peoples,” he said.

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“Have we come to a stage and is it a view of your company that the concept of free prior informed consent should be adopted in all relevant legislation?”

Ms Parker did not provide a yes or no answer but said the company would strive to achieve free prior and informed consent of Aboriginal communities.

“We’ve learnt a lot since Juukan and what this means in practice is that we are doing things differently,” she said.

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Bardi Jawi elder Frank Davey at a Kimberley Land Council protest on the steps of parliament house in June.

Bardi Jawi elder Frank Davey at a Kimberley Land Council protest on the steps of parliament house in June.Credit:Peter de Kruijff

“We are seeking better to share information with traditional owners about the nature and extent of the impacts arising from our operations on an ongoing basis and this requires involvement earlier and more consultation which assists with achieving free prior and informed consent.”

The Rio executive said she had not seen the latest draft of WA’s Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill, which will replace a 50-year-old law that prevents rights of appeal by Aboriginal people for heritage destruction, but she thought it would strengthen agreement-making and put traditional owners at the centre of protection discussions.

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The current law allowed for the destruction of the Juukan shelters with Rio given an exemption to blow up the site, before it was known how old some of its artefacts were, with no right of appeal for the PKKP.

There is still anger and opposition to the new bill from many Aboriginal corporations and land councils as traditional owners do not get a legislated final say on whether destructive activities for heritage can go ahead.

Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation’s Pilbara deputy co-chair and Njamal-Pitjakarli elder Doris Eaton said after a two-day bush meeting of the region’s Aboriginal groups that the Pilbara rejected the bill.

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“If we were at the table, things could be different. For us, we want to save our heritage for the future generations. Culture is slowly getting lost. We are not against mining. We want to be spoken to,” she said.

“Ask us, not tell us what we want. We have no say, the government have the first and last say.”

Nyikina Mangala, Karajarri, Yawuru and Jabirr Jabirr man and Kimberley Land Council chairman Anthony Watson also claimed the latest draft of the bill had gone backwards from previous versions.

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“It’s disappointing to see the minister present an updated draft that does less to address our concerns than the draft presented last year,” he said.

“Traditional owners have less say in the current draft than the draft that was released at the end of last year.”

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson said there were multiple rights of appeal for traditional owners now included in the draft which had yet to go to cabinet for approval.

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“The bill recognises that Aboriginal people hold the knowledge and cultural responsibility for their heritage,” he said.

“Under the new bill, decisions about what qualifies as Aboriginal cultural heritage will be in the hands of Aboriginal people.

“Fundamentally, this legislation will ensure Aboriginal people can define and assert the significance of their cultural heritage and, with this authority, be able to negotiate agreements with miners and other land users.”

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Former WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt – who now sits on the Woodside board and is soon to join Rio Tinto – took to social media earlier this month pointing out the new law would elevate Native Title holders above other representative groups like land councils.

“This is one of the fundamental strengths of WA’s proposed new Aboriginal heritage law,” he said.

“Simple opposition to WA’s proposed new heritage regime may well miss this historic opportunity for reform.”

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