Miners on notice as Juukan report looms

Michael RamseyAAP
An inquiry into Rio's destruction of Juukan Gorge rock shelters(above) will deliver its final report
Camera IconAn inquiry into Rio's destruction of Juukan Gorge rock shelters(above) will deliver its final report Credit: AAP

As a federal inquiry prepares to deliver its final report into Rio Tinto's destruction of the ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters, there are growing calls for free, prior and informed consent to be enshrined in land use negotiations.

The report, due on Monday, comes after more than a year of hearings involving dozens of traditional owner groups and other stakeholders.

Damning evidence was given about the events surrounding Rio's destruction of the sacred 46,000-year-old Juukan caves on Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura country, in Western Australia's Pilbara region, in May 2020.

But the bipartisan Northern Australia committee also cast a forensic eye on the relationships between other mining companies and Indigenous groups, hearing recurring concerns about inequity between the two parties.

While Rio's blasting of the Juukan Gorge caves was allowed under WA's outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act, it left the traditional owners devastated.

The global backlash that followed resulted in Rio parting ways with its chief executive and other senior figures.

"The Rio experience, I think, sent a chill up the spine of all the CEOs and directors out there, to basically make them aware that the social licence to operate is real," Ngalia elder and National Native Title Council chair Kado Muir told AAP.

"Where there are bad laws in place, there's still an expectation from the community (to go beyond compliance). And often the views of the community are reflected by the investors."

The WA government is promising to soon introduce new Aboriginal cultural heritage legislation which it says will empower land owners to make decisions about their land.

Aboriginal groups believe the draft bill does not provide sufficient safeguards and the proposed new regime would place a heavy burden on under-resourced native title groups.

Mr Muir is calling for greater federal oversight of heritage protection and says the WA government should go back to the drawing board. The McGowan government argues it has already consulted extensively with Aboriginal groups.

Investors are meanwhile taking their own action.

Industry super fund Hesta, a vocal critic of Rio following the Juukan incident, is backing a new partnership led by the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance.

The Dhawura Ngilan initiative will guide businesses to engage with First Nations people more respectfully with the hope of enshrining the principles of free, prior and informed consent in both legislation and best-practice standards.

For Hesta, which manages $64 billion on behalf of more than 900,000 Australians, the status quo represents a clear financial risk to its members' investments.

"It is absolutely crucial that we bring that term out from being an acronym that's over-used and have another look at it," Hesta's head of impact Mary Delahunty told AAP.

"It means seeking consent in an authentic way at the start of a process but it also means checking back in to ensure that that consent is still given.

"That is what is missing in many of the businesses and that is when you get a gap between what is legally allowed and what the community expectations are."

Rio has repeatedly apologised for the Juukan destruction.

Along with other Pilbara miners, it is modernising heritage agreements and has pledged to stop enforcing gag clauses which silence traditional owners.

The London-based miner last month disclosed direct and often unflattering feedback from traditional owners about its cultural heritage management.

"That sort of transparency is one of the things that investors were looking for," Ms Delahunty said.

"There were long conversations with the company about the integrity gap that needed closing and I think that message has been received."

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