Mining giant Rio Tinto is feared to be pressing ahead with plans to destroy 124 Aboriginal heritage sites in Australia – despite outcry over its destruction of sacred 46,000-year-old caves earlier this year.
Located in the historic mountainous region of Pilbara, among the threatened sites are rock shelters containing Aboriginal paintings, Stonehenge-like arrangements and built structures, believed to be of potential archaeological value.
A group representing the Indigenous residents of the affected region, at a new iron ore development in the state of Western Australia, said that the Anglo-Australian corporation had stopped short of promising a review into the action, following the outrage over the demolishing of the Juukan Gorge rock centres in May.
“Rio have stated in various forms that they will consider reviewing the agreement [but] we don’t have a formal commitment,” Grant Bussell, the Yinhawangka Aboriginal Corporation’s chief executive, told an ongoing inquiry into reappropriation of Juukan Gorge led by the Australian parliament.
Rio Tinto, the second largest metals and mining company in the world, received widespread criticism for its treatment of the site, which led to the resignation of its CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques, and his two deputies earlier this month.
The multinational had, more generally, been lacking in its protection of culturally significant sites across the region, according to Yinhawangka archaeologist Anna Fagan, raising concerns over how the rest of the sites would be managed.
“We have 327 heritage sites and 124 will be destroyed by the Western Ranges expansion project by Rio Tinto,” Ms Fagan told the public inquiry.
The inquiry also revealed that Aboriginal groups had secretly been subjected to contracts banning them from objecting to mining developments on their ancestral land, raising questions over whether they gave adequate consent.
In a statement, Rio Tinto said that it was building on decades of deep engagement as it assessed the sites to gain better understanding of “the cultural significance and values placed on these sites by the Yinhawangka people.”
It added that it had pledged to update its policy, including details around the issue of consent, with all groups on whose lands it operates in region.