Australia’s largest miners are pushing back against a federal inquiry’s proposal to pause all projects on sacred Indigenous sites across the nation’s most lucrative mining state, as key investors and First Nations leaders stand by the move to overhaul the industry.
Following months of public hearings, a joint parliamentary committee probing Rio Tinto’s destruction of two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters released a list of recommendations on Wednesday. The most far-reaching of its calls was for a Western Australia-wide freeze on all new government approvals to disturb or destroy culturally significant sites until the state’s laws were strengthened.
It also called for miners to pause plans to act on existing approvals that impact cultural heritage and launch reviews to ensure they had properly obtained “free, prior and informed consent” from the land’s traditional custodians.
Mining giant Fortescue Metals Group, whose biggest shareholder is billionaire Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, said the company did not believe the proposed “stay” on existing Section 18 approvals – permission for land-users to impact heritage sites under WA law – would be a “feasible or practical solution”.
“It is important that an appropriate balance is found between progressing important legislative reform while supporting the continued economic benefit provided by the mining industry in Western Australia,” Fortescue chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said.
Chamber of Minerals and Energy chief executive Paul Everingham said mining companies would consider the inquiry’s recommendations but described the prospect of a moratorium on approvals under Section 18 as a “blunt instrument” that would have significant community and economic implications and erode confidence.
UBS mining analyst Glyn Lawcock said the inquiry’s recommendations increased uncertainty across the Pilbara and may cloud the outlook for Australia’s most lucrative export, iron ore.
“This impacts everybody not just Rio,” he said. “You would have to think that the risk of less tonnes [of iron ore] not more tonnes as a result of renegotiations and reopening Section 18s is high,” he said.
Warren Entsch, the chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, said the wide-ranging recommendations were necessary to make sure the “devastation and the vandalism” of cultural sites never happened again.
“The PKKP [ Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation] faced a perfect storm,” Mr Etsch said on Thursday. “They had no support or protection from anywhere; they were let down by Rio Tinto, the WA government, the Australian government, their own lawyers. What chance did they have?”
The loss of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters and the federal inquiry has drawn attention to the power imbalance underpinning relations between resources companies and Indigenous communities, including “gag” in land-use contracts that ban traditional owners from objecting to projects on their ancestral land, and the outdated Section 18 laws, which provide only the applicant, not traditional owners, the right to seek a review of decisions if new information comes to light.
Mr Entsch said it was clear that the Section 18 legislation was failing traditional owners and a pause was necessary until the WA government’s ongoing review of the act was completed. “It’s not working,” he said. “So we’re saying, only on the mining side of things, let’s put a temporary moratorium on new ones, and we are asking Rio and others to review existing Section 18s.”
Superannuation fund HESTA, which holds shares in Rio Tinto, said it strongly supported the recommendation that companies halt all operations on existing Section 18 permits unless it could be verified that they had obtained free, prior and informed consent from traditional owners.
“This inquiry’s important work is ongoing and represents a significant turning point in how the mining industry and government manage heritage issues in this country,” HESTA chief executive Debby Blakey said.
Rio Tinto’s decision to blow up the Juukan Gorge shelters to expand a neighbouring iron ore mine was legally sanctioned, but it went against the wishes of the traditional owners – the PKKP people – who told the inquiry they had not been aware of the miner’s intention to destroy the ancient site until it was too late for the explosives to be removed.
Rio Tinto has apologised and conceded multiple failures in its engagement with the PKKP in the lead-up to the blast on May 24. Rio Tinto boss Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two senior executives resigned in September.
PKKP Aboriginal Corporation spokesman Burchell Hayes said he hoped the committee’s interim findings led to a “fundamental reset” of the industry, paving the way for more equal partnerships “fostered by greater respect and mutual benefit.”
“The destruction of Juukan Gorge was a global disaster that hit at the hearts of the PKKP people and the greater community,” Mr Hayes said. “We have started the long road to healing and repairing our relationship with Rio Tinto, but there is still a long way to go. We remain steadfast in our conviction that a tragedy like this should never happen again and that Rio Tinto now needs to turn its words into actions.”
The First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, a group of 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land groups, and the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors (ACSI) urged state and federal government leaders to adopt the committee’s recommendations.
“We encourage the federal and West Australian governments to act on the recommendations outlined in this report, and support change to ensure that this never happens again,” ACSI chief executive Louise Davidson said.
“Long-term investors support structural and cultural changes to the way companies approach their relationships with First Nations stakeholders.”
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Source: Thanks smh.com