• PKKP Traditional Owner Harold Ashburton at the Juukan Gorge site which was destroyed by blasts by Rio Tinto in May 2020. (PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.)Source: PKKP Aboriginal Corporation.
Traditional Owners welcome an interim report from the parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, saying they hope it marks the start of a genuine change in approach for the mining sector.
Keira Jenkins

10 Dec 2020 - 2:49 PM  UPDATED 10 Dec 2020 - 2:49 PM

Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Traditional Owners have welcomed an interim report from the parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of ancient caves at Juukan Gorge.

The inquiry has been investigating the circumstances that led to Rio Tinto detonating the 46,000-year-old rock shelters in May.

The committee's report called for Rio Tinto to negotiate compensation with PKKP people, to undertake a restoration process at the site, and to uphold a permanent moratorium on mining in the area.

PKKP Aboriginal Corporation spokesman Burchell Hayes welcomed the preliminary findings, saying Traditional Owners are looking forward to the full report, which is set to be released next year.

"The destruction of Juukan Gorge was a global disaster that hit at the hearts of the PKKP people and the greater community," he said.

"This inquiry has elicited crucial new information and provided a fuller understanding of the circumstances of this tragedy - details that may have otherwise never come to light.

'We hope the inquiry's preliminary findings prompt a fundamental reset of the sector, particularly in the relationships between Traditional Owners and mining companies and pave a way forwards for more equal partnerships fostered by greater respect and mutual benefit.

"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 report was also welcomed by the National Native Title Council, with CEO Jamie Lowe saying the next step is for state and federal governments to overhaul heritage protection legislation.

"Any restitution or remediation work Rio Tinto undertakes in relation to Juukan Gorge, as recommended in the report, is the absolute bare minimum they should be doing," he said.

"It's highly doubtful they would undertake any of these works if they were not in the public spotlight.

"Cultural change in such companies is fanciful; the mining sector cannot be trusted to self-regulate.

"It is the responsibility of State and Federal governments to implement cultural heritage laws."

In handing down the report, Committee chair Warren Entsch said "never again can we allow the destruction, the devastation and the vandalism of cultural sites as has occurred with the Juukan Gorge - never again."

"They [PKKP people] faced a perfect storm," he said.

"They had absolutely no way they could preserve their site, it was impossible for them to do that because they were up against Rio Tinto.

"The Western Australian Government let them down, the Federal Government let them down, their own lawyers let them down, and the Native Title Act is not appropriate for purpose now."


Labor Senator Patrick Dodson said the destruction of the shelters amounted to genocide.

"You are destroying the evidentiary base of the First Nations people by destroying their heritage, so that there's no real capacity for people to establish the longevity of their occupation" he said.

Mr Dodson said the loss of the 46,000 year-old heritage should be a 'wake up call' not only for the mining industry, but for the Australian people as a whole.

"We're not against the industries but we also want to make sure that we don't just arbitrarily and willy nilly destroy sites," he said.

"That had been the culture and Rio had slipped into that."

Rio Tinto was granted permission to destroy the site in 2013 under section 18 of WA's heritage protection laws. 

Archaeological excavations undertaken in 2008 had already shown the site to be culturally significant, and a further investigation in 2014 revealed highly significant ancient artefacts.

'Deliberate destruction'

Rio Tinto told the inquiry it had four options to expand its iron ore mine, three of which would not have destroyed the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge. But it was revealed PKKP Traditional Owners were never presented with these options.

The interim report found that Rio Tinto deliberately chose to destroy the rock shelters despite knowing the cultural significance of the shelters to the PKKP.

"While it was done legally, it was also done very deliberately and there's no question in our mind that there was an absolute intention to destroy that site, knowing full well the significance of it," Mr Entsch said.

The committee's report also included recommendations for Rio Tinto and other mining companies to adhere to a voluntary moratorium on applying for permission to destroy sites through a section 18 under WA's heritage protection laws - and for the state government to refrain from approving section 18 applications.

It also calls for a review of heritage protection laws at both a state and federal level, pointing out the 'inadequacies' of the current legislation.

WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt said a moratorium on new section 18 applications was not  a “practical solution”.

But he said anyone applying for a section 18 would be expected to have ”fully engaged with relevant Traditional Owners” beforehand.

"As Minister I won't be considering applications for section 18s where native title parties have not been appropriately consulted," Minister Wyatt said.

"Section 18 approvals are required for many non-mining activities including housing, road and bridge construction.

"Recent applications have included a waterbird sanctuary and a holiday park.

"I agree with the committee's recommendation for mining companies to cease using gag clauses with Traditional Owners and for Traditional Owners to have a greater say regarding their heritage."

Rio Tinto is reviewing their agreements with Traditional Owners and has agreed to a temporary moratorium on mining the Juukan Gorge area.

It has also promised not to enforce any gag clauses included in existing agreements.

Juukan Gorge inquiry: Pilbara Traditional Owners concerned about the future of their sacred sites
Pilbara Native Title groups have spoken to the inquiry into the destruction of ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, saying they are concerned about their own sacred sites.