Rio Tinto says it is urgently rethinking its other projects in a remote area of Western Australia following global outcry over its move to blow up an ancient indigenous site.
Rio detonated explosives in a part of the Juukan Gorge last Sunday –just before the start of Reconciliation Week – destroying two rock shelters which dated back more than 46,000 years.
Among the important historical and cultural artefacts at the site had been the oldest examples of bone tools, and plaited human hair believed to be more than 4000 years old.
The United Nations’ chief archaeologist said the destruction, in the Pilbara, was a “tragedy” and he likened it to the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas statues in Afghanistan and ISIS annihilating sites in the Syrian city of Palmyra.
“It’s up there as one of the worst examples in recent history,” UNESCO chair Peter Stone said in an interview with ABC radio.
“They were not only extremely important sites for Aboriginal communities but also they were extremely important sites for archaeological understanding of the distant past in Australia.
It’s a tragedy… it’s a black day for all of us.’’
– Peter Stone, UNESCO chair in cultural property protection and peace,
Rio apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people in a statement released Sunday evening.
“We are sorry for the distress we have caused,” Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said.
“Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto, having worked together for many years.
“We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership.
“As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area.”
The mining giant was granted approval for work at the Brockman 4 iron ore project in 2013, but subsequent archaeological excavation revealed it was the site of ancient artefacts.
Traditional owners have been saddened by the loss of a place of “deep connection” to the land and their culture through the explosion, explaining the detonation point was just 11 metres from the rock shelters.
On Saturday, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation rejected Rio’s suggestion its representatives had failed to make clear concerns about preserving the site during years of consultation between the two parties.
Burchell Hayes, a traditional owner of the Puutu Kunti Kurruma people, labelled the claim outrageous, saying Rio was told in October about the significance of the rock shelters and that the company had replied it had no plans to extend the Brockman 4 mine.
The high significance of the site was further relayed to Rio Tinto by PKKPAC as recently as March,’’
– Burchell Hayes, spokesman for the Puutu Kunti Kurruma people
He said Rio did not advise of its intention to blast the area and the corporation “only found out by default on May 15 when we sought access to the area for NAIDOC Week in July”.
WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt has said he was unaware of the blast or concerns beforehand.
The state government had been hoping to pass its new Aboriginal cultural heritage bill this year, although COVID-19 had delayed the consultation process.
“It will provide for agreements between traditional owners and proponents to include a process to consider new information that may come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the agreements by mutual consent,” Mr Wyatt said.
“The legislation will also provide options for appeal.”
Rio said it was committed to updating its practices.