• The before and after of Juukan Gorge following a legal mining blast conducted by Rio Tinto in Western Australia's Pilbara region in 2020. (NITV)Source: NITV
The WA Government has denied Traditional Owner’s request for a freeze to all grants already approved under section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act, which allows for damage, destruction or alteration to Aboriginal heritage sites across the state.
Rangi Hirini

6 Jun 2020 - 2:53 AM  UPDATED 6 Jun 2020 - 8:50 AM

The CEO of mining company Rio Tinto, who has faced two weeks of international backlash following photos of the destruction of 46,000-year-old ancient Aboriginal rock shelters in the Pilbara region, is now calling for better protection of Aboriginal heritage sites across Western Australia.

The iron-ore mining company has already made submissions to the reforms of the Western Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act but vows to do better in the future. 

"We've obviously had some misunderstanding,” Rio Tinto Iron-Ore CEO Chris Salisbury told the ABC’s 7.30

“We thought we had a shared understanding of the future of the caves that they would in fact be mined as part of our normal mining sequence,” he said.

Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Traditional Owner Burchell Hayes told local media TOs to recognise Rio Tinto's apology and they want to rebuild on their relationship.

"We want to now get around the table with Rio Tinto to start what that next phase in our relationship will look like," Mr Hayes said.

Mr Salisbury said the mining company’s board is doing a "comprehensive review" of the Juukan Gorge incident and will be making more announcements in the next week.

Furthermore, a new report 2014 has revealed Rio Tinto was made aware six years ago that one of the now-destroyed rock shelters held "the highest archaeological significance in Australia" and that the gorge area was ‘high significance’ to Traditional Owners. 

Mr Salisbury said the board’s review would be finding what time over the years the company could have made an alternative decision on the destruction of Juukan Gorge.

“It does hurt that this happened at Rio Tinto because it goes right to the very core of our values as a company and also it does hurt even more because we do feel that we are recognised by other as leaders in this field [of Indigenous engagement],” he said.

WA minister says his office not made aware of blast threat to Juukan Gorge
State minister denies prior knowledge of destruction of 'deep time' Aboriginal heritage sites in Western Australia’s Pilbara region as mining giant issues formal apology.

Last month, Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKPAC) released photos of their destroyed cultural heritage sites located at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

The gorge is under a native title agreement PKKPAC signed with Rio Tinto.

In 2013 the mining company applied for an approval under section 18 of the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, which gave them the approval to bypass section 17 which makes it an offence to excavate, destroy, damage, conceal or in any way alter an Aboriginal site. 

The following year, Traditional Owners and their archeologist Dr Michael Slack had found ancient artefacts including grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4,000-year-old braided hair.

According to the Pilbara based Aboriginal corporation, the discoveries had been communicated to Rio Tinto on a number of occasions including a documentary funded by the mining company. 

Since 2018, a review of the West Australian Aboriginal Heritage Act(1972) has been taking place.

Due to COVID restrictions, the process was halted at the end of phase two of a four-phase process.  The drafted legislation is yet to be released for the final round of consultation before the Draft Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill is introduced to parliament for consideration.

Some TOs have asked the state government to prevent further destruction and/or damage to other Aboriginal heritage sites across the state by putting a moratorium on all approvals granted under section 18 of the heritage act.

Once an approval is granted under section 18, Traditional Owners cannot appeal it,  only the owner of the land- such as a developer or holder of a mining lease- can make appeals.

State Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt rejected those calls because he said it would "cease activity that doesn’t have any contention".

The Australian Greens have called on the chief executive of Rio Tinto Iron Ore, Chris Salisbury, to resign or be sacked following the controversy. 

"This site was knowingly destroyed and someone must be held accountable. Rio Tinto knew this site was of deep cultural significance and should have been protected, not blown up, "Greens spokesperson on First Nations issues Rachel Siewert said. 
“This time Rio Tinto have been caught out and they will be held accountable," she said.

One of the country’s oldest Aboriginal heritage sites destroyed by mining blast
An Aboriginal heritage site in Western Australia’s Pilbara region, which provided insight to the earliest human population that inhabited the western Hamersley Plateau, has been destroyed by mining blasts.