Rio Tinto blast of ancient aboriginal site in Australia sparks concerns over local communities’ rights

Reputational damage at RioTinto as a result of Juukan Gorge’s blast in breach of the 1972 WA Aboriginal Heritage Act brought responsible investors to ask for CEO resignation. It is clear that the Aboriginal traditional owners were not granted a Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). FPIC is a fundamental requirement for human rights respect in highly impacting industries such as mining and infrastructure.

On 23 May, 2020 Rio Tinto, the world’s biggest iron ore miner, blew up Juukan Gorge, two sacred Australian Aboriginal rock caves as part of the Brockman 4 mine expansion. The 46,000-year-old caves in the Pilbara region of Western Australia is of historical heritage importance for Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP), Aboriginal Australian people, as artefacts found at the caves belong to direct ancestors of PKKP people living today.

The Aboriginal cultural site of Pilbara is extremely rich in iron ore contributing 90% of Pilbara’s earnings.

Legal & General, one of the 10 biggest shareholders in Rio and the UK’s largest asset manager, has spoken out against the incident. “Managing social licence to operate is crucial for all mining companies… We are disappointed by this incident” said Nick Stansbury, portfolio manager at Legal & General.

A “shared understanding” that the area would be mined was blatantly heralded by Rio Tinto’s head of iron business Chris Salisbury on ABC, but Brynn O’Brien, executive director of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, a shareholder advocacy organisation, confirmed that the “shared understanding” was actually non-existent and that the blast at Juukan Gorge confirmed one again that Australian Law does not protect indigenous people’s human rights around culture and consent.

The blast at Juukan Gorge remained unnoticed, with zero-to-little coverage from western media outlet until the beginning of September. On 9 September, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that key group of indigenous leaders spearheaded by Jamie Lowe, the chief executive of the National Native Title Council which represents 70 traditional owner groups and native title representative bodies, had written to Rio Tinto’s board to back investor demands for a cleanup of top executives following the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters.

Prominent Indigenous academic Marcia Langton also spoke out about the board’s decision to cut executive bonuses as penalties for the disaster. Professor Langton pointed out that Rio Tinto, as a corporation, is to be hold accountable for the blast and for treating Australia as a “resources colony”. She asked the Sunday Morning Herald: “By mining Juukan Gorge, they (Rio Tinto) got another $135 million of iron ore on ships to China, and now they have saved another $6-7 million in pay cuts for executives. How is this a penalty to Rio? .

Then, on 11 September, Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques was forced to quit together with two other executives. At the same time, on behalf of Canberra, Australia’s treasurer Josh Frydenberg asked Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson to appoint an Australian as Rio Tinto next chief executive.

The appointment of the new CEO came after a series of bonus cuts of Rio Tinto’s chief executives at the end of August. Iron ore boss Chris Salisbury,  corporate affairs boss Simone Niven and Rio Tinto’s CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques  were last month stripped of a combined $7 million in bonuses. The measures were taken after the Anglo-Australian group had confirmed that the three bosses bore partial responsibility for the blowing up of Juukan Gorge shelters.

At the same time the new CEO (potential Australian candidates for the job include Sandeep Biswas and Mark Cutifani from Newcrest Mining and Anglo American, and Nev Power, the former CEO of Fortescue Metals Group) would have to satisfy both Aboriginal people’s concerns and investors demands. The question of nationality and the sensitivity to Australia’s indigenous communities is surely important, but as 70% of Rio Tinto’s (London headquartered) shares are held by foreigners including its biggest shareholder Chinalco, a state-run Chinense aluminium producer, a political interference of Canberra in the succession process would not be welcomed.

In the meantime, Australian mining giant BHP, which obtained earlier this year (2020) a legal permission to extent its $4.6 billion South Flank Mine destroying 40 aboriginal heritage sites, decided to postpone the works aware of traditional owners’ concerns about works affecting sacred sites and ahead of the Juukan Gorge blast. Libby Ferrari, BHP’s head of Indigenous engagement, said the Banjima people (traditional owners of the mine area) had expressed concerns about impact to some heritage sites in South Flank, and said BHP had set up a heritage advisory council with the Banjima comprising Banjima elders and senior BHP representatives to bolster engagement over mine planning at South Flank.

The BHP permission comes as an application of the Section 18(2) of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act (WA AHA), which has the effect of removing the criminality from any breach of Section 17 of the WA AHA. Section 17  of the WA AHA provides for the recognition and protection against excavation and damaging of Aboriginal sites in Western Australia.

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