• Protesters are seen during a rally outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth. (AAP)Source: AAP
The National Native Title Council has written to the Rio Tinto board calling for an overhaul of the organisation, as an on-country hearing for the destruction of 46,000-year-old cultural heritage sites is delayed by Western Australia's coronavirus travel restrictions.
Rae Johnston

10 Sep 2020 - 2:23 PM  UPDATED 17 Sep 2020 - 9:10 AM

The National Native Title Council's CEO Jamie Lowe has written to Rio Tinto Chairman Simon Thompson calling for an overhaul of the board and for large scale cultural change in the organisation.

The letter also slams the mining giant's internal board-led review into the destruction of 46,000-year-old cultural sites at Juukan Gorge.

"Rio Tinto has tried to argue that the destruction of Juukan Gorge was a result of a breakdown of internal procedures, 'shortfalls of linked-up decision-making', and that 'no single root cause or error directly resulted in the destruction of the rock shelters,'" the letter reads.

"However, what has been revealed through the Senate Inquiry and additional revelatory media reports is that Rio Tinto could have acted multiple times to stop the blast from going ahead but instead repeatedly chose not to.

"Including going so far as to instruct Ashurst lawyers against any potential injunction to stop the blasting of the site. These were active decisions that cannot be explained by a breakdown in procedures."

Rio Tinto admitted in a submission to a Senate inquiry in August that it had three other options to expand its iron ore mine that could have avoided the destruction of cultural heritage at Juukan Gorge. It chose the fourth option to "access [to] higher volumes of high-grade ore". 

Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinkura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKPAC) heritage manager Dr Heather Bulith had informed Rio Tinto of the site's "top five" listing as one of the most significant places in the Pilbara region.

Traditional Owners were not told there was more than one site option available.

"We have to wonder if that is actually a [land use agreement] breach," Mr Lowe told NITV News.

"You'd think even in the essence of goodwill and whatnot, that they've breached their agreement with the PKKPAC people. What are the implications in that?"

Mr Lowe said the National Native Title Council has been calling "for some time" for Rio Tinto to do better than an internal, board-led review.

His letter to Rio Tinto details warnings given he gave to the mining company with Professor Marcia Langton and Dr Matthew Storey that a Board-led review of the destruction, "would appear as a whitewash and a failure to accept the reckoning that was required by these circumstances, and an increasingly outraged global public."

The board did not accept the recommendations, resulting in Professor Langton stepping away from assisting the review. 

In his letter to Mr Thompson, Mr Lowe labelled the media and public response to Rio Tinto's Board led review as "scathing" - particularly on slashing executive bonuses as remedy for the destruction. 

"The decision...has been rightfully regarded as falling significantly short of anything approaching appropriate accountability, and indicates that Rio is currently operating in a realm divorced from reality," the letter reads. 

"We support the calls from your shareholders for greater accountability among your executive staff and an overhaul of your Board to include a greater proportion of Australian directors."

The need for Aboriginal leadership on Aboriginal land

Mr Lowe told NITV News there is a significant systemic issue within Rio Tinto that must be addressed. 

"We are calling for [Rio] to have more Aboriginal leadership employed within Rio," said Mr Lowe. "[The Rio Tinto board] sit in the London head office. It's a $29 billion company, and $22 billion of that resource comes out of the Pilbara. So for them to recognise what they're actually doing on country, in this country, from London - that just doesn't make any sense to me."

"I think it's inevitable that these breakdowns happen. How are you meant to know the value of Aboriginal cultural heritage from halfway across the world? It isn't going to happen."

Mr Lowe said that leadership could be placed at board or executive level, and any suggestion that the right people don't exist to fill those places "really doesn't fly."

"There are a lot of great Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out there with executive-level experience," said Mr Lowe. "They are mining our country. They need to employ our people. We understand how to, from a business sense but also from an engagement sense, how to work with our people."

"If personnel doesn't change, these incidents will continue to happen."

In his letter to Mr Thompson, Mr Lowe spoke of the need for large scale cultural change within Rio Tinto. 

"It is now clear that what led to the catastrophic destruction of Juukan Gorge was not a result of a breakdown of procedures but a result of the enormous cultural and values deficit within Rio Tinto," wrote Mr Lowe. 

"This change will require the open, transparent, thorough and independent review of Rio Tinto's processes and culture as originally proposed. And, as stated in our previous meetings, it will require Aboriginal leadership."

Future inquiry meetings in limbo  

A parliamentary committee's planned on-country meeting to investigate Rio Tinto's destruction of the rock caves at Juukan Gorge was abandoned this week due to Western Australia's coronavirus travel restrictions. 

In-person meetings between The Northern Australia Committee, PKKPAC and Rio Tinto have, at this stage, been put on hold.

Future meetings are likely to be held online using virtual conferencing, but no dates have been set.

In a statement, the Committee Chair Warren Entsch said it's vital parliamentarians see the destruction first hand and share the experience - and consequences - with Traditional Owners.

'It is vital that we hear directly from those most affected, the Traditional Owners of this Country, and that can only be done in a meaningful way on country.'

He said the Committee remains determined to pursue its inquiry.

PKKPAC representatives met with Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques in Perth earlier this week.

"The PKKPAC is managing the recovery of the Juukan Gorge disaster while dealing with its ongoing relationship with Rio Tinto," said a representative for PKKPAC is a statement to NITV News. 

"This includes private meetings and discussions with senior executives to share our feelings and attempt to establish a way forward to repair, rebuild and grow our relationship.

"In the interests of maintaining integrity in this process, and in line with our approach to date, the PKKPAC would prefer to not offer further comment publicly at this time."

How do you put a price on the irreplaceable?

This week's cancelled parliamentary committee meeting was also expected to discuss "potential remedies" for the Juukan blast.

Mr Lowe described discussions about what those remedies could be as "the how long is a piece of string question."

"Literally, the multi-million dollar question."

Mr Lowe pointed to the Tinder Creek Native Title compensation case from 2019 - the first of its kind -  which compensated $2.5 million to Traditional Owners for not just loss of economic value of the land, but for cultural loss as well.

"Technically PKKPAC signed away their compensation within their Indigenous land use agreement," said Mr Lowe. "But surely, there has to be a kind of moral case, if not anything else, that the PKKPAC have to be adequately compensated for the loss of their heritage - and potentially even economic loss of land."

"There was $135 million underneath that cave."

On Monday, 31 August 2020 The Senate agreed to an extension for the inquiry, with the report due by 9 December 2020. The PKKPAC are still in the process of submitting to the inquiry. A representative told NITV News this expected to be completed "in a couple of weeks".

Rio Tinto boss to meet traditional owners after blowing up sacred Juukan Gorge
Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques wants to meet the traditional owners of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters after the mining giant blew them up.