Juukan Gorge Caves: one year on

In May 2020, mining giant Rio Tinto blew up 46,000-year-old Aboriginal caves, the Juukan Gorge caves, as part of an iron ore exploration project. It triggered public outcry, especially among Traditional Owners. 

So, what has happened since May last year? Let’s take a look. 

Rio Tinto has admitted it did not tell traditional owners there were other options for blowing up the Juukan Gorge caves. Three out of four tabled options did not involve the destruction of highly significant ancient rock shelters.

There was a parliamentary inquiry, titled ‘Never Again’, into the incident that the Senate referred to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia in June 2020. The original reporting date was 30 September but was extended to 9 December. The report called the behaviour of Rio Tinto “inexcusable” citing “Rio [Tinto] knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway”.  

The report also contained a number of other recommendations, including: 

  • outlawing the use of gag clauses between mining companies and traditional owners that prevents Traditional Owners from speaking publicly against the destruction of their heritage;
  • Rio Tinto must negotiate a restitution package (money 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 Tinto must commit to a permanent suspension on mining in the Juukan Gorge area;
  • and 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.

The company also made a public apology and has since made numerous pledges including the introduction of Integrated Heritage Management Process (IHMP); modernisation of agreements with Traditional Owners; increasing transparency; as well as establishing an Indigenous Advisory Group. 

Of course, the extent of these measures has been criticised with some saying that current legislation is not adequate in assisting Traditional Owners. Labor Senator, Pat Dodson, has previously noted that Traditional Owners are at a disadvantage when dealing with mining companies and that they are failed by state and federal heritage legislation that requires “serious overhaul”. Additionally, they have been failed by the “ineffectual Native Title Act”, which Dodson said had “delivered nothing of substance to protect the interests of First Nations”.

In September 2020, Rio Tinto Chief Executive, Jean-Sébastien Jacques, and other senior executives in the company resigned over the incident after public pressure. More recently, in May this year, there was dissent among the Rio Tinto shareholders, with 61% of shareholders in a vote cast at its annual general meeting opposed the firm’s executive remuneration package for their departure. Despite this, however, it is still expected that the executives will receive their payouts, as the vote was advisory only. 

This case and broader issue are still ongoing, and only time will tell whether the pledges from Rio Tinto are permanent.

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