Rio Tinto has accepted it bungled its communication of executive changes to traditional owners of the destroyed Juukan Gorge site.
The admission comes as new chief executive Jakob Stausholm prepares to soon meet with Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) representatives for the first time in person.
Rio blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia’s Pilbara region last year to extract $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore, devastating the PKKP.
An interim report delivered by a federal parliamentary inquiry in January slammed the “inexcusable” destruction and recommended Rio compensate the PKKP.
Former chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other senior executives resigned in September amid significant investor unrest.
In a statement released on Friday, Rio Tinto described November’s joint board meeting as a “seminal event in the relationship rebuild”.
“We jointly recognise that in any relationship, mistakes are going to be made and it is how we work through these that informs the strength and depth of the ongoing relationship,” it said.
Mr Stausholm, who was appointed last month to Rio’s top job, is understood to be nearing the end of a period in hotel quarantine in Perth.
The two parties have begun remedial works at the sacred Juukan Gorge site.
Attempts to mend the rocky relationship suffered a setback this week when the PKKP accused Rio of failing to notify them of an executive reshuffle.
In a letter to the mining giant, the PKKP said they had been promised acting iron ore chief Ivan Vella would lead the repair efforts.
They were “shocked” to learn via media reports last week that Mr Vella would take a new role in Canada heading up the company’s aluminium division.
Rio and the PKKP issued a joint statement on Friday saying both parties remained committed to building on the progress made in repairing their relationship.
“Rio Tinto accepts that it should have communicated the recent executive changes to the PKKP in a more collaborative way,” the statement said.
“PKKP understands that the PKKP relationship is owned by the chief executive iron ore and as interim chief executive, Ivan Vella held this accountability in an acting capacity. PKKP took a different perspective from the joint board meeting in November.
“The PKKP acknowledges that it was not the intention of the Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson to mislead the PKKP board and elders at the joint board meeting.”
Under the reshuffle announced last week, former chief commercial officer Simon Trott will take over as iron ore chief executive.
A new role of chief executive Australia has also been created and will be filled by Kellie Parker, who previously headed up the company’s local aluminium assets.