‘Never again’ was the verdict from Northern Australia Committee chair Warren Entsch, tabling an interim report of the inquiry into the destruction of Indigenous heritage sites at Juukan Gorge by miner Rio Tinto.
“Never again can we allow the destruction, the devastation and the vandalism of cultural sites as has occurred with the Juukan Gorge—never again,” he said.
The report makes seven recommendations focusing on improving relations between industry and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and improving the legislative framework protecting Indigenous heritage.
Among other things, it urges Rio Tinto to commit to:
- A moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area
- Rehabilitation of the Juukan Gorge site
- A review of all agreements with Traditional Owners
- A stay of all actions under s.18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972
- A voluntary moratorium on s.18 applications
- A return of all artefacts to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples
Other sections of the mining industry are urged to make similar commitments, while the Western Australian Government is urged to pursue urgent reform of current State laws.
The committee also recommends an urgent review of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Heritage Protection Act 1984, and changes to its application and administration in the meantime.
In a response to the interim report, Rio Tinto reiterated its apology to the Traditional Owners and said it remained adamant that the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters should not have occurred.
“As a business, we are committed to learning from this event to ensure the destruction of heritage sites of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again,” chairman Simon Thompson said.
“We have made important changes to the way we manage cultural heritage sites and our relationships with Traditional Owners, including a commitment to modernise our agreements.
“We recognise the importance of ensuring relationships with Traditional Owners are built on partnerships based on mutual benefit, respect and trust.”
Since the destruction, Rio Tinto said it had worked with the PKKP on a rehabilitation program for the Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelters and, with the PKKP, is assessing ways to protect the area for the future.
This includes extending a mining moratorium around the Juukan Gorge and establishing a purpose-built facility to store artefacts discovered during heritage preservation works.
Mr Entsch said many factors contributed to the destruction of the Juukan Gorge shelters in Western Australia.
“The PKKP faced a perfect storm, with no support or protection from anywhere,” Mr Entsch said.
“They were let down by Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Australian Government, their own lawyers, and Native Title law.”
Mr Entsch stressed the report was an interim report and that the inquiry would continue.
A copy of the interim report can be obtained from the committee’s website HERE