Parliament committee says miner must negotiate a compensation deal with traditional owners and ‘ensure a full reconstruction’ of the caves A parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of 46,000-year-old caves has delivered a scathing report criticising the actions of Rio Tinto and calling for the Western Australian government to put a stop to the destruction of heritage until new laws are passed. The majority bipartisan interim report said Rio Tinto’s decision to destroy two rock shelters in Juukan Gorge, against the wishes of the traditional owners and despite knowing the archaeological value of the site, was “inexcusable”. “Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway,” the report said. The report recommended a moratorium on the approval of all new section 18 approvals under the Aboriginal Heritage Act until new laws are passed next year – unless it can be “established and verified that there is current free, prior and informed consent obtained from Traditional Owners”. Protecting history: how Juukan Gorge could change mining forever It also called for mining companies to introduce a voluntary moratorium on acting on existing approvals, under section 18 of the Western Australian legislation, to destroy sites. “How many Juukan Gorge catastrophies are lurking on working schedules around the country? We don’t know because there are still existing legal regimes that permit various companies to destroy them,” senator Pat Dodson told the Senate after the interim report was tabled on Thursday. “Whilst our report is called Never Again, it’s in a legislative environment where there’s still capacity for an organisation or a company to destroy such a site. So we have a serious problem.” The report recommended the Australian government outlaw the use of gag clauses in agreements between mining companies and traditional owners, which prevent traditional owners from speaking publicly against the destruction of their heritage. It also recommended that:
- Rio Tinto must negotiate a restitution package with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples (PKKP) and ensure a full reconstruction of the rock shelters and remediation of the site at its own expense.
- Rio must commit to a permanent moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area.
- All mining companies, including Rio Tinto, should undertake an independent review of all agreements with traditional owners and remove any gag clauses or restrictions in existing agreements.
- All mining companies should commit to a voluntary moratorium on applying for new section 18 permissions until new Aboriginal heritage laws are passed.
- Rio Tinto should commit to a stay on actions on the 1,700 Aboriginal heritage sites which it currently has permission to destroy.
- The WA government should urgently establish new procedures to improve the regulation of Aboriginal heritage and undertake a mapping and truth-telling process to record all sites that have been destroyed or damaged.
- The federal Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act 1984 be “urgently” reviewed, and responsibility for the legislation revert to the minister for Aboriginal affairs.