The Australian mining sector’s treatment of traditional owners has been described as a form of “incremental genocide” during a public hearing into Rio Tinto’s blasting of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters.
As Rio’s outgoing chief, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, and of his deputies faced a federal parliamentary inquiry for the first time since the board announced their resignations, Labor senator Pat Dodson said the disaster had highlighted the glaring power imbalance between the mining giants and the traditional owners of the land on which they operate.
Senator Dodson, a Yawuru man, cited evidence before the inquiry of traditional owners feeling they had no choice but to sign away their rights, signing contracts that contain “gag orders” banning them from publicly objecting to works, and companies failing to obtain “free prior and informed” consent before disturbing sacred sites.
“Anyone that’s been objectively listening to this inquiry and the matters coming before this committee … would have to draw the conclusion that this is a form of incremental genocide,” Senator Dodson said.
“You have destroyed significant heritage for humanity. Saying sorry is one very important matter. And it seems to me that your future reputation will swing very much, as will other companies’ on how they behave to First Nations peoples.”
Devastated traditional owners of the culturally significant Juukan Gorge site, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, told the inquiry this week they were suffering immense “spiritual, emotional and physical pain”.
Mr Jacques, along with Rio’s head of iron ore Chris Salisbury and corporate affairs boss Simone Niven, resigned last month following an investor revolt over the destruction of the Juukan shelters and the board’s initially inadequate proposed sanctions.
While Rio, the world’s largest iron ore miner, remains on course to meet its export targets for the year, the fallout from the Juukan Gorge incident could potentially slow down its operations in the Pilbara.
Rio’s iron ore shipments for the September quarter fell 5 per cent to 82.1 million tonnes compared to the previous quarter and the miner told investors on Friday it expects to export between 324 million and 334 million tonnes of iron ore in 2020
It also warned that the process of mending relations with the traditional owners across the Pilbara, which may include halting all works that could affect significant sites, may slow down production. However, it did not specify just how grave an impact its enhanced focus on cultural heritage will have on overall iron ore output.
“Future potential operational and mine development impacts from the reform of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 and changes to our heritage approach remain unknown at this point in time,” the company said.
“We are consulting with traditional owners and are working through scenarios with a broad range of options available given the flexibility in our Pilbara network.”
Speaking at Friday’s hearing, Mr Jacques, who is due to depart the company in March, reiterated his and the company’s regret.
“I can only re-state how sorry we are,” Mr Jacques said. “It should never have happened.”
Rio Tinto had legal approval to blast the site in May as part of an iron ore mine expansion and said it believed it had the consent of the PKKP until representatives approached the company once the explosive charges were laid and could no longer be removed safely. In submissions to the inquiry, however, Rio has conceded it missed multiple opportunities to reconsider its plans after archaeological digs in 2014 found the site to be of much greater archaeological significance than initially thought, and to better engage with the PKKP, which could have prevented the destruction.
Meanwhile, Rio Tinto is facing potential trouble surrounding another of its mining operations after being hit with a class-action lawsuit over cost blowouts at its giant Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine in Mongolia.
The legal action, filed in the United States, accuses Rio Tinto, and individual defendants including Mr Jacques of false and misleading statements concerning the problem-plagued project’s costs and schedule. Rio’s long-held plan enlarge the Oyu Tolgoi mine – one of its most important growth projects – has been beset by a series of long delays and cost blowouts since construction began in 2019. The project was initially projected to cost less than $7 billion, but is now likely to cost more than $9.5 billion.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit, New Jersey resident Anthony Franchi, claims Rio Tinto and its subsidiary’s disclosures led to him purchasing securities at “artificially inflated prices” and he suffered damage as a result of the alleged wrongdoing.
Source: Thanks smh.com