Aboriginal elders have halted a heritage investigation into the Rio Tinto iron ore project in Western Australia amid concerns the global mining company downplayed the damage it caused them after August explosions destroyed an Aboriginal rock shelter and impacted residents.
Rio Tinto visited the Namuldi site last weekend with representatives of the Montolgora Guruma people after an August 6 explosion toppled the Pilbara forest and destroyed a square meter of rock from the remains of a shelter estimated to have housed more than 40,000 people. Inhabited for -50,000 years.
“Investigations indicated no structural damage to the rock shelter itself and no damage to cultural materials,” Rio Tinto vice president Cecile Thaxter said in a webcast on Monday. “We will learn from this incident, including adjusting our practices as necessary.”
Public outcry over this incident was much lower than what happened three years ago, when Rio Tinto destroyed the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in the same area, showing evidence of human habitation dating back 46,000 years.
But amid deep concern from traditional owners over Rio’s handling of the latest incident, Montolgora Juroma elders have halted investigations into the Brockman Sincline project, which needs the world’s largest iron ore mine to maintain production.
“Rio was quick to tell its investors that they were causing no impact on our heritage, but once again failed to take our views into account,” said Dawn Hughes, director of the Wintawari Juruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC), representing the territory. Montolgora Juroma.
“We asked Rio in 2016 to provide adequate protection for this site, but they did not do so,” she said in a statement to Reuters.
A Rio Tinto spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rio Tinto, which has not made any public statement seven weeks after the explosion, said it was sorry, had taken steps to inform relevant parties, and had reformed its practices since the Juukan incident. The company said that this is the first time, out of more than 1,800 explosions, that it has discovered such a defect.
“We are very concerned to learn that 87 of our rock shelters are under blast control. What is their condition? How many others are affected?” Hughes said, adding that traditional owners had no input or oversight of the explosions.
The dispute comes at a time when investors and car manufacturers are increasingly examining human rights and heritage protection in their assessments of Australian mines.
Rio’s destruction of rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in 2020 sparked global outrage, the departure of top executives and a parliamentary inquiry that recommended a review of Australia’s Aboriginal heritage protection laws.
However, Western Australia is on the verge of scrapping the Aboriginal Heritage Protection Acts 2021, which were introduced on July 1, due to opposition from landowners.
The latest incident comes amid declining support for the October 14 referendum that would recognize Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution and establish an Indigenous body to advise the government on matters affecting Indigenous people.
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