Mining giant Rio Tinto is feared to be pressing ahead with plans to destroy 124 Aboriginal heritage sites at an iron-ore development in Australia – despite the outcry over its destruction of sacred 46,000-year-old caves earlier this year.
Among the threatened sites in the mountainous region of Pilbara in Western Australia are rock shelters containing Aboriginal paintings, Stonehenge-like arrangements, and built structures that are believed to be of potential archaeological value.
A group representing the indigenous residents of the affected area said that the Anglo-Australian corporation had stopped short of promising a review into the action, following outrage over blasts that demolished the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in May.
“Rio have stated in various forms that they will consider reviewing the agreement but we don’t have a formal commitment,” Grant Bussell, the Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation’s chief executive, told a public inquiry led by the Australian parliament into the destruction of Juukan Gorge.
Rio Tinto, the second largest metals and mining company in the world, received widespread criticism for its treatment of the site, which led to the resignation of its CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, and his two deputies earlier this month.
The multinational had been lacking, more generally, in its protection of culturally significant sites across the region, according to Yinhawangka archaeologist Anna Fagan, raising concerns over how the rest of the sites would be managed.
“We have 327 heritage sites and 124 will be destroyed by the Western Ranges expansion project by Rio Tinto,” Ms Fagan told the inquiry.
The inquiry also revealed that Aboriginal groups had secretly been subjected to contracts banning them from objecting to mining developments on their ancestral land, prompting questions over whether they gave adequate consent.
In a statement, Rio Tinto said that it was building on decades of deep engagement as it assessed the sites to gain better understanding of “the cultural significance and values placed on these sites by the Yinhawangka people”.
It added that it had pledged to update its policy, including details around the issue of consent, with all groups on whose lands it operates in the region.