In an interim report titled Never Again, released Wednesday, the panel also recommended that the mining giant impose a moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia and rehabilitate sacred sites, estimated to be 46,000 years old.
Rio Tinto sparked a public outcry in May when it blew up parts of the Juukan Gorge, as part of an expansion to extract $ 135 million in iron ore.
“Never again can we allow the destruction, devastation and vandalism of cultural sites as happened with the Juukan Gorge – never again,” said Warren Entsch, member of the House and chair of the panel.
Entsch said indigenous peoples “have been abandoned” by the mining company as well as by the government of Western Australia, the federal government, their own lawyers and the Indigenous Title Act itself.
“By making these recommendations today, the Committee and I want to break this cycle. The neglect of the PKKP people ends here, ”he said, referring to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people living in the destroyed sites in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.
The provisions of Western Australian state laws – including the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 – also allowed the company to legally carry out the destruction, she noted. Under section 18 of the law, developers can seek consent to legally damage or destroy Indigenous sites.
Return of artifacts
Although the full report is not expected until the second half of next year, the panel stressed that Rio Tinto must carry out the reconstruction and rehabilitation at its own expense.
All artefacts taken from destroyed sites should also be returned and any agreements made with the traditional owners of the holy places should be reviewed.
At least 13 public hearings have taken place since the destruction in May, and the group has received more than 140 submissions from miners, heritage specialists and indigenous groups and civil society.
Entsch, the head of the investigation committee, said with the volume of evidence presented, as well as the delays due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the committee would not be able to complete the investigation until next year. .
The panel has not yet specified how much restitution the mining giant will have to pay Indigenous Australians, but noted that there was “still a long way to go” before the damage was repaired.
“Rio Tinto must now turn its words into action,” he said.
In September, anger over the destruction of the sites forced Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques to announce his resignation, although he will not officially leave his post until March 2021. Two other executives were also forced to resign.
In a statement Wednesday, Rio Tinto said it “recognizes” the report and “reiterates its apologies” to indigenous peoples, adding that the destruction “should not have taken place.”
“We recognize that the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters has caused great suffering to the people of Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura and we are working very hard to find a cure with them,” said Simon Thompson, president of Rio Tinto.
Experts said major legal reforms are needed to ensure that such destruction does not happen again. A bill to delete section 18 is currently under public consultation.
“The investigation laid bare the enormous challenges that First Nations people face when mining occurs on their lands,” wrote Deanna Kemp, John Owen and Rodger Barnes, of the Center for Social Responsibility in Mining. the University of Queensland, in The Conversation. “This highlights the urgent need for a rebalancing of power to prevent mining production priorities from dominating to the detriment of everything else.
The academics said their research found that the work of community relations and indigenous affairs teams remained ‘peripheral’ to mine planning and production, while employees with limited understanding of customary land issues dominated the area. discussion on access to land and cultural heritage.
They noted that while companies have rushed to strengthen communities and heritage teams in the wake of Jukaan Gorge, there is still a long way to go.
“Social specialists and indigenous peoples need to occupy positions of authority and influence internally to contain the self-interest of companies,” they wrote.
Rio Tinto is estimated to have a valuation of $ 123 billion. The company also faces several allegations of corruption and environmental destruction in other parts of the world, including China, Papua New Guinea and the United States.