‘Inexcusable’: A federal inquiry has slammed Rio Tinto’s destruction of the Juukan caves – and found the blame goes all the way to the top

Rio Tinto has been completely battered by a federal inquiry into its destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves. (Aaron Bunch, Getty Images)
  • Rio Tinto has been blasted by a federal inquiry for its “inexcusable” destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves.
  • “Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway,” it concluded in its interim report, recommending a moratorium of future approvals for Rio where it cannot prove it has the consent of traditional owners.
  • However, the blame lies far and wide for the tragedy, with the report taking aim at different levels of government, and state and commonwealth laws more broadly.
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The latest investigation has found that responsibility for the tragedy lays with not only Rio, but with state and federal governments, lawyers, and even the law itself.

The federal inquiry’s interim report this week has categorically savaged the mining giant, leaving no stone unturned in levelling blame for the destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves in May.

“Rio Tinto’s role in this tragedy is inexcusable. Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway. It pursued the option of destroying the shelters despite having options which would have preserved them,” the inquiry found.

While the demolition of the Pilbara caves did not break the law per se, Rio proceeded despite knowing it did not have the consent of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP).

“Rio Tinto’s conduct reflects a corporate culture which prioritised commercial gain over… meaningful engagement with Traditional Owners,” it said.

“This corporate culture belied Rio Tinto’s public rhetoric of working in partnership with First Nations people, as reflected in the company’s (now dis-endorsed) Reconciliation Action Plan.”

While the inquiry, titled ‘Never Again’, was evidently scathing of the mining company, its board, and corporate culture, it didn’t shy away from sharing the blame around.

“[The PKKP] faced a perfect storm, with no support or protection from anywhere. They were let down by Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Australian Government, their own lawyers, and Native Title law.”

Its final report is due out on 2021, but the repercussions of the scandal will continue for years, according to the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility Centre (ACCR).

“This is a story of serial and cumulative failures. The Inquiry’s diligent work has thrown a long-overdue light on the atrocious treatment of First Nations Australians by governments and mining companies. No one has escaped censure,” ACCR legal counsel James Fitzgerald said.

Senator Entsch concluded that Rio’s recount of events “beggars belief”, with the inquiry crediting Rio shareholders with forcing the mining giant to take belated responsibility, leading to the eventual resignation of CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques, and other executives.

“Rio Tinto’s behaviour and culture may have remained largely without sanction but for the admirable and unprecedented intervention of the company’s own shareholders, who demanded more than the token consequences first proposed by Rio Tinto’s board,” Fitzgerald said.

“Senator Entsch has this evening praised shareholders’ response, saying investors have sent a clear message, ‘not in my name.”

The interim report recommends that restitution is made to the PKKP, the caves restored, and signals far greater scrutiny of Rio’s approvals to disturb cultural sites, including a moratorium on future approvals where Rio cannot prove it has consent to proceed.

But it goes beyond Rio, with the incident raising serious and wide-ranging questions of the mining sector and its relationship with Aboriginal stakeholders.

The inquiry recommends that Western Australia’s ‘Aboriginal Heritage Act’ should be replaced with something stronger, and that the federal ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Heritage Protection Act’ is reviewed for its own adequacy. It also endorses a further review of existing mining agreements with Aboriginal communities.

The final report next year will scrutinise the role of governments and the existing laws, with a view to ensure mining companies do not repeat Rio’s sins.

“Other resource companies need to take note: governments, investors and the community will no longer tolerate such tragedies,” Entsch wrote.