Rio Tinto’s choice to ruin the ancient Juukan Gorge caves permitted it to access iron ore worthy of $135m, the company’s main government JS Jacques claims.
Under questioning, Mr Jacques said the land’s traditional owners – the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people – were never told there were other options that could have protected the Juukan Gorge site.
“The PKKP was not made aware that four options were available in 2012 and 2013,” he said. “Only one option was presented to the PKKP.”
Despite archaeologists’ reports circulating within the company, Rio Tinto bosses said no member of the company’s executive team had been made aware of the cultural significance of the site until after the explosives had been laid.
Warren Entsch, chair of the joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, said he was disturbed by the fact that the PKKP were not fully informed about other possible mining plans, and wanted the inquiry to delve further into the matter at a later date.
“When we talk about the principle of free prior and – I highlight – ‘informed’ consent there is an admission that it was conveyed to the PKKP that there was only one option,” he said. “That really bothers me.”
Rio Tinto, which had legal approval to blast the Juukan Gorge site, said it believed it had the consent of the PKKP until the explosives had already been laid and it was too late to call off the detonation safely.
The Juukan Gorge disaster has highlighted the power imbalance between the nation’s mining giants and Indigenous communities, and raises questions being explored by the inquiry into the need for greater legal protections for traditional owners to safeguard significant sites on their ancestral land.
In its submission to the inquiry, Rio acknowledged it could have made better decisions and been better partners with the PKKP in the years leading up to the blast in May. The miner said it had missed multiple opportunities to better communicate with the traditional landowners or pause to rethink its mine expansion plan.
The inquiry also asked Mr Jacques to respond to claims in The Australian Financial Review on Friday by his predecessor, Sam Walsh, who said he had ordered the gorge not to be mined during his time as chief executive. Mr Jacques told the inquiry the law firm hired to establish the timeline from 2003 to the date of the blast did not find any such directions from the former CEO.
Mr Jacques on Friday reiterated his apology to the PKKP.
“Their pain became very personal to me when I spoke to their current and previous chairs a few months ago,” he said. “These conversations will stay with me forever.”
Mr Jacques said he recognised that the events at Juukan “should not have happened”.
“I believe when mining is done well, it significantly contributes to all Australians, including Indigenous communities,” he said. “What has become clear to me is this: Rio Tinto and the industry must listen more to the voice of traditional owners. And I mean, really listen.”
Ancient artefacts unearthed at Juukan Gorge – including grinding and pounding stones, a 28,000-year-old marsupial bone which had been sharpened into a tool and a 4000-year-old belt made of plaited human hair with DNA linking it to today’s PKKP people – have placed the site among the country’s most significant archaeological research sites.
Business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
Hamish Hastie is WAtoday’s business reporter.