The destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelter at the Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto has resulted in serious repercussions for the world’s second-largest mining company that had sought to access high-grade iron ore. The rock shelters were of significant cultural significance to their Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP). The company’s submission to a parliamentary inquiry into the destruction of the caves stated that the company “deeply regret that the processes to facilitate the preservation of such significant sites failed to prevent the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters.” Additionally, the company also stated they had “failed to meet (their)…own internal standards.” Due to the significant backlash from indigenous communities and investors following the incident, several members of the company’s leadership team, including CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and Chairman Simon Thompson, resigned.
The company conducted a board review of the events that led to the destruction of the rock shelters and identified “a series of systematic failures” of their communities and heritage management processes. In response to the recommendations set out in the board review and parliamentary inquiry, Rio Tinto stated that the company was committed to a permanent moratorium on mining in the area in and around the Juukan Gorge and to work with the PKKP on a remediation plan. They have also stated that they are reassessing any activities that have the potential to impact the heritage site and are working with Traditional Owners groups to develop a detailed heritage management protocol to enhance cultural protection.
However, the company’s first report on progress in improving Communities and Social Performance (CSP) practices found that Pilbara Traditional Owners believe that the company “is still doing the bare minimum required to recover its reputation”, illustrating the challenges faced by Rio Tinto to regain its social license.