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Rio Tinto and Traditional Owners strike deal on path forward after Juukan Gorge blast debacle

Traditional Owners and mining giant Rio Tinto have signed an agreement to guide cultural heritage management in the wake of the destruction of sacred rock shelters at WA’s Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara.

The PKKP Aboriginal Corporation said on Friday it had signed a non-binding heads of agreement with the company to guide the ongoing management of mining on the lands of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.

PKKP chairman Burchell Hayes said the past two years had been, and would continue to be, incredibly painful for the PKKP people, but there had also been ongoing effort to rebuild a relationship with Rio Tinto.

“This agreement provides clear acknowledgement that Rio Tinto accepts that the destruction of the rock shelters should not have happened and makes clear that it is absolutely committed to listening, learning, changing and co-managing country,” Mr Hayes said.

“While the agreement is non-binding, we believe it is a clear signal of intent from Rio Tinto and one that will ultimately be tested in the co-management agreement that is reached.”

He said the agreement outlined the key principles for co-management to ensure the future protection and preservation of heritage sites on PKKP country.

These principles included providing greater control and involvement by PKKP traditional owners over mining activities, communication between both parties on equal terms and clear delineation of mine areas.

Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Simon Trott said the agreement was an important step in rebuilding relations with the PKKP people.

“The PKKP people have graciously shared their knowledge to help inform our approach to best practice management and protection of cultural heritage as well as how we can deliver better social and economic outcomes on the ground,” Mr Trott said.

“Our company continues to reflect on the loss and hurt that we caused at Juukan Gorge which was a clear breach of our values.

“We know we have a responsibility to help shape a better future by seeking out, listening to, respecting and being responsive to Indigenous voices and perspectives.”

Rio blew up the 46,000-year-old Juukan caves on Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura country in May 2020, devastating the Traditional Owners.

The mining giant had legal permission to destroy the caves under WA’s outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act but has since conceded it breached the PKKP’s trust.

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