MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling adds its voice to Aboriginal Juukan demands

Published by MAC on 2020-07-24
Source: Nostromo Research, The Age (Melbourne)

Rio Tinto has "gone back to square one"

The Juukan Gorge sacred Aboriginal site has vanished from the earth [See: Rio Tinto "must be declassified" ]

But this issue - which has rocked Australia - just won't go away, and mustn't be allowed to so so.

Amidst the many arguments created by the event, one of them seems not to have been widely voiced. Put simply: if Rio Tinto had adhered to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and its obigation to respect FPIC at every stage of a company's operations, could this monumental desecration have occurred in the first place?.

While proclaiming, at many stages over past decades, that "free, prior and informed consent" of Indigenous Peoples, is a vital prequisite for its operations, Rio Tinto's profiteering "bottom line" has clearly ruled its roost one more.

[London Calling is published by Nostromo Research and does not necessarily reflect the views of any other party].

'Gutted': Former Rio Tinto VP says blast threatens decades of progress

By Nick Toscano

24 July  2020

The Age

A former head of Aboriginal relations at Rio Tinto fears the mining giant's destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred site in Western Australia has unravelled decades of work developing close ties with traditional owners and reveals the company has lost its focus.

Following the blasting of two culturally significant rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in May that left the traditional landowners devastated, former Rio Tinto vice-president Paul Wand said the miner's actions had caused immense distress to those within the organisation who had worked to establish its industry-leading reputation.

Paul Wand, AM, is a former head of Aboriginal relations at Rio Tinto.

In an interview with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Wand said he was "gutted" to learn of the ancient site's destruction, and felt like the company had gone "back to square one".

"I was extremely saddened," he said. "There was a company reputation that had been built up and a lot of people had contributed to that reputation, which was a fairly proud reputation ... and it’s been lost. I don’t know if it’s irrevocable but it's certainly very seriously damaged, with one action that I think could have been avoided."

Following the Juukan Gorge disaster, Rio Tinto has publicly apologised for the distress caused by the destruction of the site and has launched an internal review of its heritage-management processes, led by non-executive director Michael L'Estrange, a former Australian high commissioner to the United Kingdom.

Mr Wand, who has been awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for service to Indigenous communities, was a central figure in leading pivotal changes to Rio Tinto's once-adversarial approach to traditional landowner engagement in the late 1990s. These reforms set aside legal hostilities, established an industry-first policy of respect and mutual acceptance to negotiate native-title agreements and cemented community relations as a core business function. More recently, Mr Wand has been a consultant to Rio Tinto on the framework for several native-title negotiations with First Nations groups, including the Juukan Gorge traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.

"I think the organisation has changed, and focus has been lost in this area," Mr Wand said.

Rio Tinto, Australia's second-largest mining company, has faced international condemnation after blasting the site on the Sunday before National Reconciliation Week. The miner has since been stripped of its endorsement by Reconciliation Australia, become the subject of a federal inquiry and has launched a board-led internal review.

Rio had all the legal approvals needed to conduct the blast to make way for the expansion of its Brockman 4 iron ore mine and said it believed it had secured the consent of the PKKP, until representatives for the group approached the company once the explosive charges were already in place and could not be removed safely. The PKKP has rejected claims it had not previously relayed the preference for the ancient site to be preserved.

'Incomprehensible': How Rio Tinto reduced 46,000 years of history to rubble

Mr Wand said accountability for Rio Tinto's community relations had been absorbed by the group's external relations in recent years. He said maintaining close ties and regular meetings between the general manager of an operation and host communities were critical in order to avoid failures to understand the wishes of traditional owner groups. "It's not a given that the people who are worried about corporate relations understand the depth and meaning of community relations," he said

"The responsibility has to be a mainstream responsibility of the operating parts of the business. I'd certainly be looking for a complete re-examination of their engagements with communities across the board."

In a statement, Rio Tinto said its communities function worked closely with leadership at all levels and included teams based at operations.

"We currently have more than 250 people doing communities work across Rio Tinto at 60 operations and projects in 36 countries. This includes 100 people in our iron ore team in the Pilbara," a spokesman said. "We employ anthropologists, cultural heritage experts, archaeologists and are one of the largest employers of Indigenous peoples."

Under Rio's current structure, although the community relations function has been centralised, there are still communities teams based on site that have constant engagement with site management.

Following archaeological excavations commissioned by Rio Tinto in 2014, the Juukan Gorge site was found to be more historically significant than previously thought. Artefacts 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 from plaited human hair with DNA linking it to today's PKKP people have placed the site among the world's most significant archaeological research sites.


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