Traditional owners say they are being “robbed of a voice” after the indefinite deferral of a parliamentary inquiry visit to the historical Juukan Gorge site, which was infamously blasted by Rio Tinto.

The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia, which is investigating the May 24 destruction of two ancient caves, postponed its trip to WA on Wednesday due to the state’s COVID-19 travel restrictions.

In a statement on Thursday, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people said they were extremely disappointed, distressed and frustrated by the delay.

“This decision serves to rob us of a voice in the proceedings,” PKKP Aboriginal Corporation chair John Ashburton said.

Rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in Western Australia's Pilbara region.
media_cameraRock shelters in Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

“To date, Rio Tinto and others have been given a voice and public stage to present their views on the disaster. The same courtesy has been denied to us by this delay.”

The PKKP said while the committee was not to blame, allowances should be made for members to travel to WA due to the global significance of the inquiry.

Mr Ashburton called for the visit to be urgently rescheduled so PKKP submissions could be made and the committee could see the impact of the destruction before rehabilitation work began.

A sign towed by a plane over central Brisbane. Activist group GetUp had organised the protest sign, calling for the sacking of Rio Tinto’s CEO over the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Dan Peled
media_cameraA sign towed by a plane over central Brisbane. Activist group GetUp had organised the protest sign, calling for the sacking of Rio Tinto’s CEO over the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves. Picture: NCA NewsWire/Dan Peled

“Prolonging this investigation only serves to further deepen our hurt and anguish about the irretrievable loss of connection to our ancestors and our country,” he said.

“The community deserves the full facts of the Juukan Gorge disaster be told in a timely manner to ensure this kind of tragedy never happens again.”

Rio Tinto initially only apologised for causing the traditional owners distress, then later broadened its contrite statements.

“We deeply regret the events at Juukan Gorge and have unreservedly apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people,” the company said.

“The destruction of the rockshelters should not have happened, and we are absolutely committed to listening, learning and changing.”

A former adviser to the mining giant, Professor Glynn Cochrane, said in a supplementary submission to the committee last week after giving evidence to the inquiry that Rio Tinto, even after its own board-led internal probe, would “not be organised to do what it says it wants to do”.

“When a company such as Rio Tinto has no professionally qualified and industry experienced social scientist either on the board or the executive committee, it is hard to believe that social performance and heritage management is being taken seriously,” Prof Cochrane said.

The inquiry’s report is now due on December 9.

Protesters rallied outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth in June after the company detonated explosives in an area of the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. Picture: AAP Image/Richard Wainwright
media_cameraProtesters rallied outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth in June after the company detonated explosives in an area of the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara. Picture: AAP Image/Richard Wainwright

Meanwhile, it is understood Rio Tinto held a board meeting on Thursday amid growing shareholder pressure to sack one or more executives over the incident.

Rio Tinto was granted permission to interfere with the site by the state government in 2013 – a year before archaeological surveys revealed evidence of human occupation from more than 46,000 years ago.

The WA government is in the process of reforming its heritage laws.

Premier Mark McGowan was asked about the inquiry delay on Wednesday and said it was the reality of the coronavirus situation that federal MPs would face travel restrictions.

“There is some risk, so we’ve put some restrictions around them. There’s restrictions on all of us, by the way, on going to remote communities,” he told reporters.

“Saving the lives of Aboriginal people in remote communities is important.”

Originally published as Juukan Gorge inquiry delay ‘distressing’

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