Rio chairman moves to reset relationship with Indigenous group over cave blast

Mining giant Rio Tinto has begun work on building the trust of Indigenous communities following the Juukan Gorge cave disaster, revealing its board and chairman Simon Thompson has met with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people in a bid to reset the relationship.

The boards met while Rio’s London-based chairman Mr Thompson was in Australia in November visiting the Brockman 4 mine to see first-hand the destruction of the rock shelters, where evidence of 46,000 years of human habitation had been found.

PKKP traditional owner J. Boy Ashburton at Juukan Gorge surveys the damage on September 17, 2020.
PKKP traditional owner J. Boy Ashburton at Juukan Gorge surveys the damage on September 17, 2020.Credit:PKKP and PKKP Aboriginal Corporation

“While we have made some initial positive steps in rebuilding our relationship there is so much more we need to do in order to shape a shared future for our next generations of PKKP people working with Rio Tinto,” Kurrama elder Burchell Hayes said in a joint statement.

Acting chief executive of Rio Tinto iron ore Ivan Vella agreed, saying there was a lot of work to do to rebuild trust and confidence in the business. “I look forward to continuing the work with PKKP traditional owners to re-chart our partnership and build a shared future,” he said.


The statement revealed the two organisations had been remediating the site and were working on a heads of agreement that would “capture Rio Tinto’s commitments” and steer the relationship rebuild.

It is significant because the rare public statements from the PKKP to date have denounced Rio’s actions before and after the blast and describe the pain felt by traditional owners at the loss of such a sacred site.

The Northern Australia parliamentary committee’s interim report into the Juukan blast, handed down earlier this month, called for the WA government and mining companies to freeze all new approvals to disturb or destroy culturally significant sites.

The committee also recommended Rio negotiate a restitution package with the PKKP and fund a “full reconstruction” of the two rock shelters.

Neither Rio Tinto nor the PKKP would provide details on what commitments would be included in the heads of agreement or when it would be inked.

In his response to the interim report, Mr Thompson said a mining moratorium around the Juukan Gorge had been established and they were working on building a purpose-built facility to store artefacts discovered at the site.

The Juukan blast drew worldwide condemnation of Rio Tinto and cost the jobs of three executives including outgoing chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques after an intense investor campaign demanded greater accountability.

Mr Vella is also the president of the Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA and in a speech to members on December 8 he said Rio Tinto’s relationship with the PKKP was not as good as it needed to be and urged the sector to learn from their mistakes.

“Now, clearly, I recognise the considerable ramifications our actions have had for the industry and the broader reputation of mining across the community,” he said.

“I have tried to reflect on how the events of Juukan Gorge can be a catalyst for positive change,” he said.

“Certainly, it has served as a stark reminder of the heightened public expectations on all of us and the impact society can and will have on our operations if we don’t get it right.

“Rightly so, society’s expectations of our industry are greater than ever before, not just in relation to heritage, but across a broad spectrum of [environmental, social, and corporate governance] issues.”

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