• Professor Marcia Langton is the lead author on a new study, which finds Indigenous women are facing barriers to reporting family violence. (BENT3LAND PRODUCTIONS)Source: BENT3LAND PRODUCTIONS
Professor Marcia Langton has called for Rio Tinto to apologise to its staff following the destruction of 46,000 year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, and for Traditional Owners to receive reparations for the destroyed cultural heritage.
Keira Jenkins

28 Aug 2020 - 4:27 PM  UPDATED 1 Sep 2020 - 12:17 PM

A Federal Parliament inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia has heard that Rio Tinto had not taken the engagement with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people seriously.

The inquiry heard from the University of Melbourne's professor Marcia Langton who said in her submission that she "did not believe that Rio Tinto has taken its legal responsibilities in relation to the cultural heritage matters of the PKKP traditional owners of the Juukan Gorge caves at all seriously".

Professor Langton told the inquiry on Friday the PKKP Traditional Owners should receive reparations for the destruction of their significant sites.

She said she is concerned Indigenous Land Use Agreements with mining companies such as Rio, put pressure on Traditional Owners to 'negotiate away' their existing rights.

"We were aware at the beginning of those [Agreements, treaties and negotiated settlements] research projects that Aboriginal Traditional Owners in negotiation with mining companies and other resource industry companies under the terms of the Native Title Act were at risk and in some cases signing away or negotiating away existing rights," she said.

"We cannot tell what the standard of cultural heritage protection because those arrangements as set out in the Indigenous Land Use Agreements in most cases, remain today, completely confidential and I think that is a very serious flaw in the Native Title system."

This concern was echoed by representatives from the National Native Title Council.

Deputy chair Kado Muir said while Rio Tinto was acting in compliance with the law, it was not acting with the best interests of the PKKP people in mind.

Mr Muir said there is not a level playing field between Traditional Owners and mining companies when it comes to negotiating these agreements.

"The company has acted within the law and the law is written in such a way... and also enforced in such a way that reduces our agency or our capacity as Aboriginal people to perform our responsibilities to look after our special places and cultural heritage," he said.

On Monday Rio Tinto published a board review which determined there was 'no single root cause or error' of the destruction of the rock caves at Juukan Gorge, sparing the company's CEO and senior executives from losing their jobs.

Instead, three executives, including the CEO will lose around $7 million in bonuses.

Professor Langton said she declined to take part in an internal review by Rio Tinto's following the destruction of Juukan Gorge because she felt it would lack transparency.

She told the inquiry that Rio Tinto staff deserved an apology from the mining giant.

"Imagine being an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander of Rio Tinto at this time," she said.

"It would be an excruciating experience.

"I think Rio Tinto owes an apology to its staff, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, who joined the company on the understanding that Rio Tinto was a good corporate citizen and did in fact comply with its stated policy goals of respect for Traditional Owners, respect for their cultural heritage.

"None of which seems to have been part of their recent operational procedures."

Rio Tinto tells Senate inquiry it could have avoided Juukan Gorge destruction
Rio Tinto has admitted it could have avoided destroying two cultural heritage site at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia's Pilbara region at a Senate inquiry into the destruction of the 46,000-year-old rock caves.