Rio Tinto yet to pay compensation over sacred site destruction

FILE PHOTO: A sign adorns the building where mining company Rio Tinto has their office in Perth, Western Australia, November 19, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray

MELBOURNE, (Reuters) – Mining giant Rio Tinto is yet to pay compensation to the Aboriginal group whose ancient rock shelters it destroyed at one of its iron ore sites in Western Australia last year, company officials told a parliamentary inquiry Friday.

The incident last year destroyed the historically and culturally significant site at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region that showed evidence of human habitation 46,000 years ago into the last Ice Age.

The destruction created public outrage that led to a dramatic overhaul of Rio’s leadership and a review of the Australian laws that are supposed to protect significant sites of the world’s oldest living culture.

An interim report from a federal parliamentary inquiry in December said Rio should pay restitution to the Puuti Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP) with the final report and recommendations due in coming months.

The head of Rio’s Australian operations, Kellie Parker, told the inquiry on Friday the company was committed to “doing the right thing” around paying restitution but said that details around the financial component of any compensation were subject to a confidentiality agreement at the PKKP’s request.

Rio Tinto has rehabilitated parts of the Juukan Gorge and is working to restore the shelters in a structurally sound way, she said.

More broadly, Rio has moved responsibility for company relationships with traditional owners and mining near significant sites to operational managers, rather than the company heritage division.

It has also committed to review mining plans around all areas of significance and “modernise” agreements with traditional owners, Parker said, without clarifying whether this could include backpayments for historic royalties.

Rio Tinto does not pay royalties to traditional owners for some mines for which agreements were struck prior to the native title act in 1993.

The PKKP said that it continued to work in good faith with Rio Tinto on the recovery and rehabilitation at Juukan Gorge as well as the development of a co-management model for their operations.

“The results on these will be the true test of our relationship with Rio Tinto,” it said.

PKKP said it wanted a relationship-based co-management system with Rio that reflected a shared commitment and respect for its rights, and participation in decision making throughout all phases of a mine, from development to closure.