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The inquiry into the destruction of Indigenous heritage sites at Juukan Gorge by multinational mining company Rio Tinto has published its interim report, lambasting the company’s “inexcusable” behaviour in destroying the 46,000-year-old caves.

The report, titled Never Again, highlights a disparity in power between Indigenous peoples and private industry in the protection of Indigenous heritage and underscores the considerable failings of legislation designed to protect Indigenous heritage.

Acknowledging the publication of the interim report, Rio Tinto chair Simon Thompson said: “We recognise the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters caused significant pain to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and we are working very hard to progress a remedy with them.

“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. 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.”

Chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia Warren Entsch, who led the inquiry, said: “Never again can we allow the destruction, the devastation and the vandalism of cultural sites as has occurred with Juukan Gorge – never again!”

Entsch said that several factors contributed to the destruction of the ancient caves, which contained direct genetic links to the present-day traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples (PKKP).

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“The PKKP face a perfect storm, with no support or protection from anywhere,” Entsch said. “They were let down by Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Australian Government, their own lawyers, and Native Title law.

“In making these recommendations today, the Committee and I want to break that cycle. The neglect of the PKKP people stops here.”

The report makes seven recommendations focusing on improving the relations between industry and Indigenous communities and improving the legislation designed to protect Indigenous heritage.

Recommendations for Rio Tinto

The report firstly recommends that Rio Tinto should negotiate with the PKKP for a restitution package for its destruction of Juukan Gorge, and ensure a full reconstruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters and remediation of the site at Rio Tinto’s expense. This reconstruction should be done with the guidance and oversight of the PKKP, and should specifically include steps to mitigate water and other damage to the creek that flows in Juukan Gorge, as well as steps to protect the Sacred Snake-head Rock Pool.

Rio Tinto should also commit to a permanent moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area, negotiated again with the PKKP. This should be respected by all mining and exploration companies, not just Rio Tinto.

The report also suggests that Rio Tinto should commit to a stay on all actions under the company’s current Section 18 permissions – the governmental approvals that allow a landowner to damage or destroy Indigenous sites – until they are properly reviewed to ensure that “free, prior and informed consent” has been obtained from traditional owners. This should go alongside a commitment to a voluntary moratorium on new Section 18 applications pending the passage of stronger protections in Western Australia, or the negotiation of a protocol for an improved surveying process with traditional owners.

Recommendations for the WA Government

Western Australia’s legislation was criticised at the time of the Juukan Gorge incident as outdated and insufficient in protecting Indigenous heritage, and the inquiry’s report similarly condemned the legal protections in Western Australia.

The report urges the WA Government to replace the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 with stronger protections “as a matter of priority”. Progress has already been made on reforming this legislation since the Juukan Gorge caves were destroyed in May this year, but the inquiry said that as a minimum any new legislation must ensure Aboriginal people have meaningful involvement in, and control over, heritage decision making, in line with internationally recognised principles of free, prior and informed consent. Any new legislation should also prohibit agreements which seek to restrict traditional owners from exercising their rights to seek protections under State and Commonwealth laws.

The inquiry also reported that a large number of heritage sites in Western Australia has been de-registered since 2011. The report, therefore, urged that this is investigated, proper procedures are ensured for the removal of heritage sites from the register, and sites that were inappropriately removed are reinstated.

Western Australia should also commit to a “mapping and truth-telling project”, to record all sites that have been destroyed or damaged with approvals given under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, including visual representations of this destruction or damage. This should be undertaken with a view to establishing a permanent exhibition or memorial in the Western Australian Museum.

Recommendations for mining companies

While the inquiry was started in response to – and focused largely on – the one incident carried out by Rio Tinto, the process of gathering evidence for the inquiry revealed that numerous mining companies have benefitted from the lacklustre heritage protection legislation. Some companies, including BHP, voluntarily committed to reviewing their Section 18 approvals in light of the Juukan Gorge incident and ensuing outcry. The inquiry has recommended that this process be undertaken by all mining companies in Western Australia regardless of whether they operate on Indigenous land or not.

Mining companies should commit to similar moratoriums on Section 18 licences as Rio Tinto itself has been urged, and the WA mining industry should facilitate the sharing of all heritage information and mapping technology used by mining companies with relevant Indigenous groups. This is to ensure traditional owners have access to records of their cultural heritage and are resourced to set up their own mapping initiatives.

Mining companies have also been urged to actively support and provide funding for the Western Australian government’s aforementioned mapping and truth-telling initiatives.