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Juukan Gorge owners to give evidence

Traditional owners of the ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters are set to give evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into Rio Tinto’s destruction of the ancient sites.

The Puuti Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation will address the Northern Australia Committee via teleconference on Monday.

It comes almost five months after Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old sites so it could extract an additional $US135 million ($A188 million) worth of high-grade iron ore.

PKKP had wanted to hold hearings on country so MPs could visit the sites and inspect the damage for themselves.

But Western Australia’s COVID-19 travel restrictions have forced the committee to hear the evidence remotely.

In a scathing submission to the inquiry last month, PKKP said there was a deep-rooted culture within Rio and the broader mining industry of undervaluing Aboriginal heritage.

PKKP also spoke of facing backlash from other traditional owners who blame them for the loss of the 46,000-year-old sites.

“PKKP people feel immense grief, guilt and a sense of failure for not being able to exercise their responsibility to look after country,” they said.

Rio’s chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other executives resigned last month following intense investor backlash.

Rio had consent under WA’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act but failed to act upon its knowledge the sites were among the most significant in Australia.

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Rio Tinto was not concerned about the archaeological or ethnographic findings in relation to the significance of the Juukan Gorge and was only interested in maximising the yield of iron ore,” PKKP said.

The submission outlined the sequence of events that led to the destruction, including the 2006 signing of an initial agreement between the parties which PKKP said was a “direct consequence of its inequitable negotiating position”.

It said PKKP and Rio had agreed to a moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area until at least January 2021.

PKKP also want the site to be fully remediated.

Rio has promised to review all participation agreements struck with Pilbara traditional owner groups.

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