Rio Tinto works to manage fallout from destroyed caves in Australia

June 8, 2020

As Rio Tinto works to contain the fallout from the destruction of two caves with cultural and historical significance to the aboriginal people in Western Australia, its chairman, Simon Thompson, will meet with a number of investors in the United Kingdom.

During expansion work at an iron ore mine Juukan Gorge, Rio Tinto carried out a blast that destroyed two caves that showed evidence of continual habitation dating back 46,000 years.

Reuters reported that in 2013, Rio Tinto won state government approval to destroy the caves. Rio Tinto said it believed it had consent from the traditional owners of the caves, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP), because they had not explicitly asked that the site not be mined.

The PKKP leaders said the company knew of the significance of the caves. The caves, for which Rio Tinto funded at least four excavations, revealed thousands of archaeological remnants subsequent to its 2013 approval to destroy the site.

“Our elders are deeply distressed about this,” Burchell Hayes, a director of the PKKP Corporation said to the ABC.

“For years, we have made mention how significant those sites were to the PKKP people. When we say that those sites are significant, we have an expectation that miners, in this case, Rio Tinto … they don’t go and disturb that place,” he said.

Rio Tinto apologized and said it would urgently review its plans for other sites in the area.

The issue comes as large investors are focusing more on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues in making investment decisions.
Norway’s $1 trillion oil fund said it had sold out of Brazilian miner Vale after a deadly dam disaster as well as Glencore and Anglo American, after they had breached its guidelines on the use of coal.

“Managing social license to operate is crucial for all mining companies,” said Nick Stansbury, portfolio manager at Legal & General, the UK’s largest asset manager. “We are disappointed by this incident and are concerned about the implications for the ongoing relationship with local communities.”

“We have obviously had some misunderstanding. We thought we had a shared understanding of the future of the caves, that were going to be mined as part of our normal mine sequence,” Rio Tinto’s chief of iron ore Chris Salisbury told the ABC.

“There is concern about the Juukan Gorge destruction as well a serious discontent about the way this crisis has been managed by Rio,” said Brynn O’Brien, of activist investor the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.

Australian legislation allows mining companies to apply for an exemption to destroy Aboriginal sites.

Of the 463 applications in the past decade, none have been rejected, Western Australia Environment Minister Stephen Dawson told parliament last month. Applications can be appealed by mining companies but not by traditional owners.



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