• PKKP Director Burchell Hayes says Traditional Owners want to co-manage mine sites with Rio Tinto. (Supplied.)Source: Supplied.
Traditional owners say they want to co-manage mine sites with industry giant Rio Tinto, a year after the company deliberately blasted two culturally significant 46,000-year-old rock shelters in the Pilbara.
Karen Michelmore, Lindy Kerin, Shahni Wellington

The Point
18 May 2021 - 8:46 AM  UPDATED 7 Sep 2021 - 5:00 PM

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people today released a video statement one year on from the destruction on May 24, which devastated Aboriginal groups across Australia, trashed Rio Tinto’s reputation, and shook the Australian mining industry to its core.

“We are not going to let this happen again,” said PKKP director Burchell Hayes.

“We want to make sure that we are an important partner to any mining activities on our country and the only way we are going to achieve that is through the management.

“We want to do business with the mining proponent, but we want to do it on our terms.”

Rio Tinto told NITV it is open to co-management, and is working with peak industry and Aboriginal groups to understand what form this could take.

Kellie Parker was appointed head of the company’s Australian operations in March. She has worked for the company for 20 years and has spent many years in the Pilbara.

She said Rio Tinto was committed to doing what it could to rebuild its shattered relationships.

“We know that we have to do things in a different way on our mine planning, and one of the things that we’d really like to do is truly learn from this, where we actually set a new benchmark or best practice around cultural heritage and mining, and we set the industry standard,” she told NITV’s The Point program.

“We’re working with the peak bodies, not only for mining, but also for the Indigenous community, to understand how we actually get to co-management of our mining.”

A year on from the blasts, much has changed.

Three senior Rio Tinto executives were forced to resign, albeit with significant payouts. Global investors have attempted to hold the company to account in a way that would have been unimaginable before the destruction.

But the pain for Traditional Owners, and the fall out, continues.

“No amount of money will ever replace that,” Mr Hayes said.

“Nothing. I’d rather have the rock shelter back than you write me a check. That’s how I feel about it.”

An archaeological report funded by Rio Tinto identified one of the caves as being of “the highest archaeological significance in Australia”, with some 7000 artefacts uncovered there, including a 4000-year-old human hair belt which linked the site directly to the ancestors of the current Traditional Owners.

A federal parliamentary inquiry launched after the blasts handed down an interim report in December, finding that Rio Tinto “knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway”.

The parliamentary investigation is continuing, and has been travelling around the country hearing about the threat to other cultural sites and the serious failings of state and territory, and Commonwealth, legislation to protect country.

Rio Tinto also continues to feel heat. A week ago at its Annual General Meeting in Perth investors voted against big bonuses for top executives, in protest at the destruction.

Rio Tinto’s Australia CEO Kellie Parker said since the blasts, the company had re-examined more than a thousand cultural heritage sites, abandoning a potential 54 million tonnes of iron ore.

“We looked at over 1000 cultural heritage sites, and we put them from "Cleared mining", to "Prohibited", to ensure that we went back to all the Traditional Owners to say, is it cleared for mining? No, we need to check,” Ms Parker said.

“And if it's not clear for mining then we put a buffer zone around it immediately so that that is not cleared at all.

“And that process is ongoing to make sure that we are talking with every Traditional Owner group.”

The company is also working with the PKKP and structural engineers to see what parts of the shelters could be potentially restored, or rebuilt.

“We’ll never mine the Juukan area. We know that,” she said.

“It’s been taken off our mine plan and it will be... a safe place, for PKKP.”

For Traditional Owners like Burchell Hayes there is still a long way to go to rebuild trust.

“We’ve had to reset the relationship,” he said.

“I’m sure there are other Traditional Owners in the Pilbara that are looking at what’s happened here, and the way that PKKP is moving forward in resetting that relationship.

“We want to make sure that the outcome we achieve is one that is going to be sustainable for our future generation, and they are able to benefit from the work that we do now in resetting this relationship, so that we avoid something like this ever happening again on our country.”

'I was literally on the floor crying': Djab Wurrung woman's emotional plea during cultural heritage protection inquiry
The Juukan Gorge Inquiry into the destruction of Aboriginal cultural heritage sites continues to hear submissions from around the nation.

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