Australian inquiry into sacred cave destruction seen recommending mining reforms

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FILE PHOTO: A sign adorns the building where mining company Rio Tinto has their office in Perth, Western Australia

By Melanie Burton

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – An Australian inquiry into Rio Tinto’s destruction of ancient rock shelters is likely criticise the miner’s procedures and recommend legal and sector reforms when it issues its findings next week, according to legal, Indigenous and mining sources.

The inquiry into the lawful destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters for an iron ore mine expansion in May has heard dozens of testimonies and seen more than 140 submissions from miners, heritage specialists and Aboriginal and civil society groups. It is due to report on Dec. 9.

By shining a light on outdated industry practices and the laws that support them, the inquiry has already sparked change, even though its recommendations may well fall short of demands from Aboriginal groups for a right of veto, lawyers and Indigenous advocates say.

“From an Aboriginal rights and social licence to operate perspective, the world has turned and if anyone in the resources industry… is wanting to impact country, they ignore that at their peril,” said Marcus Holmes, principal of Land Equity Legal, who has negotiated more than 250 native title and heritage agreements in the past 25 years.

Already, Rio has acknowledged procedural failings and its chief executive and two other senior leaders have lost their jobs. It is expected to announce its new leader any day.

The inquiry has exposed practices including ‘gag’ clauses in land use agreements that restrict Aboriginal groups from publicly objecting to mining developments and from using some Australian laws to protect their land. Some of these are now being unwound.

OVERSIGHT AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Among changes by Australia’s iron ore giants, Rio has increased its oversight and accountability to include reviews of its heritage management by board committees.

Rival BHP Group has found ways to preserve more heritage sites at a mine expansion in the same region and now requires more senior level approval before any site is harmed. It has also stepped up discussions with Indigenous groups.

Fortescue Metals Group said it will now inform Aboriginal groups when it plans to impact their sites in case they have new information to offer.

Institutional investors are also demanding greater accountability.

“Particularly this year, investors are learning that you have to look behind a company’s reporting and statements if you want to know the truth about ESG performance,” said legal counsel James Fitzgerald of activist shareholder the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.

Whether the committee would go as far as to recommend veto rights was the big question, said Jamie Lowe, chief executive of land rights body the National Native Title Council.

“We don’t need to be scared of this question of veto. In ethical organisations, if (an Aboriginal landowner group) says ‘See that sacred site over there, don’t go there’, most say ‘OK, we won’t go there’. It will be protected,” he said.

“First Nations people, they are not adverse to development. We just want our heritage protected at the same time.”

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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