Indigenous leaders and academics highlighted the blatant hypocrisy of giant corporations such as Rio Tinto, which in May 2020, destroyed a sacred Indigenous site to expand their iron ore mining operation.
In August 2020, Rio Tinto affirmed its loyalty to Indigenous Australians, and highlighted the decades-long relationship the corporation has with traditional landowners in the Pilbara. However, following the United Nations International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, the hypocritical and lopsided nature of this relationship has come sharply into focus.
Parts of the Juukan Gorge, a 46 000-year-old site of deep archaeological and spiritual significance to the The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, were destroyed by Rio Tinto which received permission to conduct the blasts under Section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act.
The PKKP people, the traditional owners of the land on which the Juukan Gorge is located, expressed their deep disappointment and sadness at the actions of Rio Tinto.
The PKKP people are “grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land”, says chair of the PKKP land committee, John Ashburton. Such an extraordinary loss to the PKKP people is compounded by the near decade long relationship between traditional owners and Rio Tinto.
The decision to destroy parts of the Juukan Gorge was heavily criticised by WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister, Ben Wyatt, who slammed the mining giant for being out of touch with Pilbara residents and possessing a “…very limited understanding of the relationships they need to forge in Western Australia”.
Anthropologist Glynn Cochrane is an expert in social responsibility and mining, and previously advised Rio Tinto. Cochrane expressed concern for the 7,000 artefacts which were removed from the Gorge—artefacts which proved human habitation in the area going back almost 50,000 years.
Quantifying the spiritual and anthropological loss, Cochrane calculated the destruction of the Gorge is “…almost like blowing up the tomb of the unknown soldier and forgetting its occupant”.
Pro-Vice chancellor and head of the William Cooper Institute, Jacinta Elston has highlighted this corporate hypocrisy which permeates discussions of reconciliation and Indigenous rights.
While we can acknowledge Rio Tinto’s apology, Elston remarks “one can only assume that its corporate goals to expand mining operations and profits” drove the company to make the decision to detonate explosives in the Gorge.
The contrast between the actions of Rio Tinto and their reassurance that the company is still committed to empowering Indigenous communities who protect the land on which the corporation conducts its operations is stark.
On August 8, Rio Tinto turned off their logo at their Central Park office as a gesture of reconciliation at the request of the Dumbartung Aboriginal Corporation. The corporation acknowledges this was largely “a symbolic gesture”, however states “we want to reassure Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who have voiced their concern, disappointment and sadness for the loss of an important cultural heritage site, that we are listening”.
Most recently, three senior executives at Rio Tinto, including chief executive Jean-Sebastian Jacques, have stepped down following increasing pressure from shareholders to appoint individual accountability for the Juukan Gorge explosion. This gesture has been appreciated by Indigenous Rights Groups such as the National Native Title Council, however the NNTC have reminded Rio that this firing can only be the first step in rebuilding the relationship between the company and traditional owners in the Pilbara.
Unfortunately for the PKKP people, the company’s willingness to listen and learn comes far too late. Readers can show their support for the PKKP people by signing petitions demanding that Rio Tinto be held accountable, and by donating to the PKKP Charitable Trust.