Rio Tinto concedes Juukan Gorge cave ‘irreparably damaged’

Rio Tinto has conceded its decision to blow up rock caves in Western Australia last year has “irreparably damaged” an ancient site sacred to Indigenous people.

The mining giant released its 2020 annual report on Monday morning and detailed the status of the Juukan Gorge caves in the Pilbara region, which were of significant importance to Aboriginal communities.

“Remediation of the Gorge will be a challenging project,” the company said.

“While the Juukan 2 rock shelter is likely to be irreparably damaged, Juukan 1 appears to be largely intact.

“Both shelters will be restored to the fullest extent possible and, if it is safe, access will be re-established.

“Other parts of the Gorge, including the Snake pool, which were not impacted by the blast, will remain protected and its connection to the Juukan 1 and 2 rock shelters will be re-established.”

The PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, which represents traditional owners, has said Rio Tinto’s decision to detonate the sites to access iron ore for its Brockman 4 mine expansion caused immense trauma for local communities.

Rio Tinto said the initial mining agreements had been organised between 2006 and 2011, and admitted management overlooked the historical importance of the site.

“The decision to destroy the rock shelters was taken nearly eight years ago but, because mining is such a long-cycle industry, that decision was not actually implemented until 2020,” the company said in a statement.

The company conceded an archaeological study of the region in 2013 and 2014 should have prompted an internal review.

Rio Tinto said it was taking steps to overhaul its processes and approach to cultural heritage, and was also working with First Nations groups on remediation through a parliamentary inquiry.

Newly appointed chief executive Jakob Stausholm said the company was determined to rehabilitate and rebuild its credibility and reputation.

“Our destruction of the 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia was a breach of that leadership and our values,” Mr Stausholm said.

“We are working hard to heal and rebuild our relationships, credibility and reputation, and I know this will take time and effort.”

Three executives, including former chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques, were ousted from the mining giant in the wake of the international scandal.

“The board fully recognised the gravity of the destruction at Juukan Gorge but was mindful that the three executives did not deliberately cause the events to happen, they did not do anything unlawful, nor did they engage in fraudulent or dishonest behaviour or wilfully neglect their duties,” the annual report read.

Mr Jacques’ remuneration for 2020 was £7.224m ($12.86m), up from £5.999m in 2019 ($A10.68m), but he lost long-term bonuses.

Mr Stausholm gets a base salary of £1.15m ($A2.05m) plus a raft of benefits and bonuses including a long-term incentive plan award of up to 400 per cent of his base salary, the report shows.

It also revealed the median employee in the group has an annual salary of £90,000 ($A160,230).

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