Rio Tinto’s Juukan Caves Disaster – The State of Play

Featured Image: Protesters gathered outside Rio Tinto's Perth office after the blasting of the Juukan caves. (Photo: SBS Australia)

You will hopefully remember that the mongrels at Rio Tinto (LSE:RIO, ASX:RIO, NYSE:RIO) blasted two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters of enormous cultural and technological significance into oblivion earlier this year, when they absolutely did not need to.

Figure 1. Before and after clearing. (Source: Australian Financial Review)
Figure 1. Before and after clearing. (Source: Australian Financial Review)
Figure 2. Harold Ashburton, one of the traditional owners of the Juukan Gorge, at the caves before they were destroyed. (Source: ABC Australia)
Figure 2. Harold Ashburton, one of the traditional owners of the Juukan Gorge, at the caves before they were destroyed. (Source: ABC Australia)

To recap: Rio CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques, as well as the head of corporate relations and head of iron ore, eventually stepped down after public and shareholder outcry over the atrocity.  By the time these executives found out about the blast (after the very late-informed traditional owners raised the alarm), it was too late to save the Juukan 1 and 2 caves, which contained the earliest examples of grindstone and bone tool technology in Australia, as well as a belt made from human hair that was around 4,000 years old and demonstrated the genetic connection between the hair’s ancient owner and the local Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people.  This act has been referred to as corporate vandalism, incremental genocide, cultural valndalism, and comparable to ISIS's destruction of Palmyra – all of which seem pretty appropriate.

Figure 3. Archaeological digs at Juukan 1 and 2 uncovered over 7,000 artefacts. (Source: ABC Australia)
Figure 3. Archaeological digs at Juukan 1 and 2 uncovered over 7,000 artefacts. (Source: ABC Australia)

Of course, Rio executives and decision-makers have been terribly apologetic in public for the whole thing, but that didn’t stop them bullying the traditional owners into not speaking out until the caves were destroyed, and continuing to pack explosives after the PKKP people expressed their frantic concerns.  And, to nobody’s real surprise, it turns out that they are actually not sorry at all.  On top of all that, the departing London-based executive whose ultimate responsibility this disaster was, Simone Nevin, made no contact with the PKKP people until after they made their recent submission to the ongoing federal inquiry and has never visited them or the mine site – for which she is also, naturally, sorry.

Last week, indigenous WA senator Pat Dodson ripped into the three disgraced executives at the ongoing inquiry, telling them that while their apologies were important, Rio had “…destroyed significant heritage for humanity” and lambasted the “…lack of free prior and informed consent, the forcing of people into contracting out their rights, [and] the management of culture that ties traditional owners and takes advantage of weak laws.”

Figure 4. Indigenous West Australian senator Pat Dodson was one of the politicians grilling Rio representatives during the federal enquiry. (Source: SBS Australia)
Figure 4. Indigenous West Australian senator Pat Dodson was one of the politicians grilling Rio representatives during the federal enquiry. (Source: SBS Australia)

The destruction was legal under approval granted by Colin Barnett’s WA government in 2013, but Barnett himself has now called for a royal commission into the issue, saying that a lot more is now known about the Juukan sites.  Paul Wand, a former vice-president of Aboriginal relations at Rio, blamed the blinkered pursuit of high-grade ore and profit for the decision to blast the caves, and prominent Indigenous academic, Professor Marcia Langton, decried Rio Tinto’s “deception” on the matter.

Figure 5. PKKP chief executive Carol Meredith (left) giving evidence to the federal enquiry over teleconference due to corona. (Source: ABC Australia)
Figure 5. PKKP chief executive Carol Meredith (left) giving evidence to the federal enquiry over teleconference due to corona. (Source: ABC Australia)

So has Rio learned its lesson?  Here’s a rundown of the organizational failures that led up to this catastrophe, and the senior academic authors of that piece seem to think it has.  This is Rio’s own outline of the steps it is taking to make sure this doesn’t happen again. The meatiest of these seem to be a review of all activities with potential effects on heritage sites, revising agreements to respond to new heritage information that comes to light, and that the company has told traditional owners that it will not enforce gag clauses that stop them from raising concerns like those expressed by the PKKP people prior to the blasts, or from trying to protect their sites through statutory processes.  There are also a slew of new appointments and reporting lines so that there’s someone more specific to blame for future failures of this kind.

But the head of Rio’s communities and social performance program has said that there was a culture at Rio of testing what the company could get away with, and that doesn’t seem to have improved. In the US, Rio-controlled Resolution Copper (RCM) is currently planning to stove in a piece of Arizona land that it acquired in a fabulous piece of federal pork-barelling, which also happens to be a significant burial and cultural site for the local San Carlos Apache tribe.  Back home in Australia, Rio subsidiary Energy Resources Australia is, for some reason, balking at paying a relatively paltry $AU2.5 million per year for the scientific body which will monitor the outcomes of its $AU1.5 billion rehabilitation project on the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu.  Are these the fights that a repentant corporation would be picking?

Figure 6. Cartoon by David Pope, published in The Canberra Times. (Source: The Canberra Times)
Figure 6. Cartoon by David Pope, published in The Canberra Times. (Source: The Canberra Times)

Anyway, if you can stomach it, here is a video of the aftermath of the blast featuring some of the area’s traditional owners.  And please remember the “immeasurable cultural and spiritual loss and profound grief" that this brazen destruction has caused the PKKP people, as well native people everywhere who understand all too well the loss of their culturally and spiritually significant sites and artifacts.

Jane