Multinational miner Rio Tinto is facing a fresh and highly-charged disagreement with the Aboriginal traditional owners of the Juukan Gorge heritage site, which the company blew up last year.
The blast destroyed 46,000-year-old rock shelters in the Pilbara, obliterating sites of great cultural and archaeological significance, and caused serious damage to the company’s reputation.
The detonations cost the jobs of Rio Tinto’s chief executive, corporate affairs boss and the head of iron ore.
In the wake of the cleanout, Ivan Vella was appointed as interim iron ore boss.
But last month Rio Tinto announced he was moving to a different role and another senior executive Simon Trott would replace him.
The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation has now written a scathing letter to Rio Tinto criticising the decision to move Mr Vella.
Traditional Owners ‘reluctant’ to continue relationship
The letter says the PKKP was alerted to the personnel change through media reports despite a previous undertaking that Mr Vella would be personally overseeing the repair of the damage to the relationship.
“PKKP has shown nothing but good faith, making real and meaningful efforts to repair our relationship, while every action by Rio Tinto to date, including the latest announcement under your leadership, rings hollow,” the letter says.
“PKKP is reluctant to participate in a relationship of this nature any longer, and I hope you understand that other stakeholders may take a similar approach.”
The letter, signed by the PKKP’s chief executive Grant Wilson, spells out concerns about “trust” in the mining company.
“Now PKKP is left to consider how it will respond to this latest in many disappointments, and whether trust in Rio Tinto can ever be realised,” the letter said.
The correspondence was sent three days ago.
It said the treatment would be perceived as the same “business and usual” approach “that led to the Juukan Gorge tragedy”.
“That Aboriginal stakeholders deserve no consideration or inclusion and should not get in the way of doing business.”
Rio committed to rebuilding ties
Mr Vella is understood to have had direct discussions with traditional owners to explain his departure at the time it was announced, but the PKKP was not satisfied with that.
A spokesman for Rio Tinto said the company was “committed to rebuilding the relationship” with the PKKP.
“This remains a priority for Rio Tinto. We are encouraged by the progress on the planning for the remediation of the Juukan Gorge area but readily acknowledge we have a lot more work ahead of us,” he said.
“We value an honest and open dialogue with the PKKP as this is critical to all enduring relationships.”
The spokesman said Rio Tinto hoped that recent positive engagement could continue.
“Rightly, the relationship with all traditional owners in the Pilbara, including the PKKP, is led by the chief executive of the Iron Ore business,” he said.
“We are confident that ongoing engagement with the PKKP will help maintain the momentum built over recent months.”
Native title body warns Rio has lost ‘respect’
The National Native Title Council said the actions of Rio Tinto threw fresh doubt on its promises of trying to make amends for the damage caused.
“This latest development is a further example of how, despite Rio Tinto’s rhetoric, that not only do they not value their relationship with traditional owners but they do not have the skills necessary to build and repair their partnership with the Indigenous community,” the council’s CEO Jamie Lowe said.
“The lack of respect for the PKKP in breaking this promise, would obviously be deeply disappointing, but it’s also disappointing for the entire sector who are holding high hopes for Rio to overhaul its company culture.”
This week’s letter from the PKKP shows relations have severely frayed since a joint statement issued in late December by Rio Tinto and the traditional owners.
In that two-month old document, the PKKP said they acknowledged that “Rio Tinto has taken steps to address the hurt and devastation” caused by blasting the caves.
That joint document also quoted Mr Vella as the “acting” mines manager.
“We know we have a lot of work to do in order to rebuild trust and confidence in our business. I look forward to continuing the work with PKKP traditional owners to re-chart our partnership and build a shared future,” Mr Vella is quoted as saying.
A parliamentary committee has been investigating the destruction of the heritage sites and the actions of the mining company. It is yet to hand down its final report.
Rio Tinto said it had worked on a rehabilitation program for the destroyed sites, and is assessing ways to further protect the area.
A moratorium on mining has been put in place around Juukan Gorge and the company said artefacts taken from the rock shelters had been moved to a purpose-built facility in line with the wishes of traditional owners.
Previously the parliamentary committee heard evidence of fears for the preservation of thousands of artefacts, some tens of thousands of years old, that were in shipping containers at the mine site and were not being stored in line with museum standards.