Rio Tinto reiterated its determination to ensure that the destruction of heritage sites of exceptional archaeological and cultural significance, such as the Juukan rock shelters, never occurs again.
In its submission to the Australian Parliamentary Inquiry into the destruction of the rock shelters at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Rio Tinto set out its relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) from 2003 to 2020 and the circumstances over this period that led to the events that occurred in the Juukan Gorge.
Rio Tinto Chief Executive JS Jacques said, “The destruction of the Juukan rock shelters should not have occurred and I have unreservedly apologized to the PKKP people. As a first priority, our aim is to strengthen our partnership with the PKKP. That remains our focus. We have also taken actions to strengthen governance, controls and approvals on heritage matters.
“I am continuing to meet with Traditional Owners across Australia and remain committed to listening and learning.”
During 2012 and 2013, Rio Tinto progressed its plans for Brockman 4, Pit 1 in the Juukan Gorge area and four pit options were considered. Three avoided the shelters to varying distances. The fourth option impacted the rock shelters in order to access higher volumes of high-grade ore, and was the option that was chosen by Rio Tinto. In 2013, Rio Tinto received consent to impact the Juukan rock shelters. The PKKP were informed of this consent. A further ethnographic survey was conducted in 2013 and three excavations of the Juukan rock shelters were conducted in 2014 to ensure the salvage, analysis and ex situ preservation of the cultural heritage material contained within the rock shelters. As a result, new information on the significance of the Juukan rock shelters became available.
“It is clear that various opportunities were missed to re-evaluate the mine plan in light of this material new information,” the company said in a statement.
It continued, “Several further opportunities were missed at this stage to pause and reflect on whether the agreed plan of ex situ preservation of the heritage material discovered within the rock shelters was sufficient or whether the rock shelters themselves should be also preserved.”
A formal request to cease mining activities at the Juukan rock shelters was received by Rio Tinto from the PKKP in May 2020, but it was too late.