Juukan inquiry calls for freeze on projects threatening sacred sites

A federal inquiry investigating Rio Tinto’s destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters has called for a moratorium on all mining projects that threaten sacred Indigenous sites across Western Australia until new legislation has been passed.

Following months of public hearings into the disaster, the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia on Wednesday night issued a series of recommendations, the most far-reaching of which was a call for the WA state government and mining companies to commit to a freeze on all new approvals to disturb or destroy culturally significant sites.

Before it was destroyed by Rio Tinto, the Juukan Gorge in WA held evidence of human habitation dating back 46,000 years.
Before it was destroyed by Rio Tinto, the Juukan Gorge in WA held evidence of human habitation dating back 46,000 years.

The comittee has also recommended Rio Tinto negotiate a restitution package with the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, who were left devastated by the the gorge’s destruction in May and that the miner fund a “full reconstruction” of the two rock shelters.

“Rio Tinto’s role in this tragedy is inexcusable,” the committee’s interim report said. “Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway. It pursued the option of destroying the shelters despite having options which would have preserved them.”


The destruction of the gorge in May ignited worldwide condemnation, the federal inquiry and a shareholder revolt that eventually forced the resignations of Rio Tinto’s chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two of his deputies – iron ore boss Chris Salisbury and head of corporate affairs Simone Niven.

The blasting of the Juukan Gorge site was was legally sanctioned, but went against the wishes of the traditional owners who told the inquiry they were not aware of Rio Tinto’s intention to destroy the site until it was too late for the explosive charges to be removed.

The miner was given permission in 2013 to blast the site under Section 18 legislation of the WA Aboriginal Heritage ACT, 1972 that provides only the applicants, not the traditional owners, the ability to seek a review of earlier decisions in the event new information comes to light.

Ancient artefacts unearthed at Juukan Gorge following the 2013 approval – including grinding and pounding stones, a 28,000-year-old marsupial bone sharpened into a tool and a 4000-year-old belt made of plaited human hair with DNA linking directly to today’s PKKP people – had placed the caves among the most significant archaeological research sites in Australia.

Across the mining sector, the loss of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters and the federal inquiry have drawn attention to the power imbalance underpinning relations between mining companies and Indigenous groups, including “gag” clauses in land-use contracts that ban traditional owners from publicly objecting to projects on their ancestral land, and the outdated Section 18 legislation, which is now being reviewed by the WA government.

Rio Tinto has apologised and conceded multiple failures in its engagement with the PKKP in the lead-up to the blast on May 24. The miner wrote to 12 Indigenous groups across WA’s Pilbara in October, vowing to free them from any gag clauses contained land-use agreements and improve social and economic benefits provided for mining their ancestral land.

Rio has previously told the inquiry it was engaged directly with the PKKP on determining an “appropriate remedy. It is also taking action to protect the Juukan site from the wet season amid talks about remediation.

The federal inquiry has heard from dozens of Australia’s top mining company executives, traditional owner representatives and heritage specialists as it investigated Rio Tinto and the broader Australian mining industry’s approach to sacred Indigenous sites and engagement with First Nations peoples.

The committee’s push for a blanket moratorium will be fiercely opposed by mining industry leaders. The Minerals Council of Australia has argued a moratorium would unnecessarily stall not only mining works but also infrastructure projects for an “unknown and possibly extended period of time”.

WA Liberal Senator Dean Smith, a member of the committee, voiced objections to the moratorium call, saying halting Section 18 approvals would be a “handbrake” on the state’s resources sector.

“The committee’s proposal for a moratorium is out of step with the broader cross-aisle efforts to grow the Australian economy and does not acknowledge the significant support the industry has provided the economy during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

The committee is aiming to hand down its final report in the second half of 2021.

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