WA’s Aboriginal Affairs Minister has slammed Rio Tinto over the destruction of 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge as he released a draft bill to change the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act.

Key points:

  • The proposed Aboriginal Heritage Act changes follow a two-year review
  • The draft bill removes the controversial Section 18 process, Ben Wyatt says
  • He’s hit out at Rio Tinto after ancient caves at Juukan Gorge were destroyed

Ben Wyatt made a scathing assessment of the mining giant, which he said was “fearful” of engaging with the region where it generated most of its profits.

“A vast distance has emerged between Rio’s board in London and the Pilbara,” he said.

“In 2019, of the $29 billion in earnings for Rio, $22 billion came out of the Pilbara.

Rio Tinto has said it is focused on repairing its relationship with traditional owners in the Pilbara.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

“Whilst they may think they’re a global company, they’re a Pilbara company with overseas interests.

“What has happened with Rio Tinto, they have a great absence in the Pilbara now, they don’t have an understanding of the community in which they generate the vast majority of their earnings.

“One of the greatest risks to their operation is the fact that they don’t appear to have a significant presence as a company. I don’t mean the local executives and the local team here, but as a board.

New measures more inclusive: Wyatt

Mr Wyatt said the company had not really engaged with the WA Government over what happened regarding the caves.

Juukan Gorge in 2013, left, and then in 2020 after it was cleared but before Rio Tinto blasted and destroyed two rock shelters.(Supplied: Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation, composite ABC News)

But he said Rio had been involved with the review of the Heritage Act, something that had been under way for two years.

The explosion at Juukan was enabled under Section 18 of the 1972 Act, which excluded Aboriginal groups from having a voice.

Mr Wyatt said that would change.

Protests were held in June outside Rio Tinto’s Perth headquarters after the caves were destroyed.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

“The Section 18 process, well, that will be eliminated,” he said.

“[Once] a section 18’s issued, it effectively disappears off out there [and] there’s no capacity to revisit it, to impose new conditions or to consider new information.

“That will all go and new information will be able to be considered.”

Mr Wyatt said the new measures would be more inclusive.

“The requirements around the heritage management plan that land users have to agree with traditional owner groups is designed to ensure that we don’t get this sort of breakdown in communication or understanding around the significance of a location,” he said.

‘A one-size-fits-all approach’

Stop work orders could also be issued, and penalties would increase to $10 million for corporations, with the potential for prison terms in “egregious scenarios”.

“It’s a one-size-fits-all approach for us, whether you are a local government putting in a retaining wall on the Swan River or whether you are dealing with very sensitive locations in the Pilbara. The process is exactly the same,” Mr Wyatt said.

Aboriginal groups and industry stakeholders are due to be briefed on the draft changes in the coming weeks.(ABC News: Hugh Sando)

The draft bill provides for early consultation in identification and management of heritage, a new heritage council to facilitate agreements, and the creation of heritage services to ensure the right people speak for country.

“We now know in the vast majority of cases who the right traditional owners are, that’s come about through the native title process.”

Briefings on the draft bill are set to be held with Aboriginal groups and industry stakeholders in the coming weeks.

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