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Rio’s latest rock shelter damage highlights need for Aboriginal Voice, advocates say

Melbourne, Australia

Damage caused to an Aboriginal rock shelter by mining giant Rio Tinto in August underscores the need for better heritage protection laws and a greater say for Indigenous groups promised in this month’s Voice referendum, advocates say.

Rio admitted on 21st September to damaging a rock shelter on 6th August in Western Australia’s Pilbara region while blasting at a nearby iron ore mine. Rio is now working with the Muntulgura Guruma people to assess what had happened, it said.

A combination image shows the Nammuldi rock shelter before and after a mine blast by Rio Tinto in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, on 6th August, 2023

A combination image shows the Nammuldi rock shelter before (left) and after a mine blast by Rio Tinto in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, on 6th August, 2023. PICTURE: Rio Tinto/Handout via Reuters

Rio’s destruction of rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in 2020 prompted a global outcry, the departure of top executives and a parliamentary enquiry that recommended an overhaul of Australia’s Aboriginal heritage protection laws. 

“Regrettably, it seems as though Rio’s blast management plan has failed on this occasion leaving the Muntulgura Guruma People to pick up the pieces,” said Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the Muntulgura, in a statement. “Any impact is of course unwelcome.” 


Support for an Australian constitutional referendum on Indigenous rights and recognition has edged higher, according to a poll published on Tuesday, although a majority of voters still intend to vote no when polls close in less than two weeks. 

The latest Guardian Essential poll shows the yes vote rose two points to 43 per cent over the past fortnight, while the no vote slipped two points to 49 per cent. The shifts are within the poll’s three-point margin of error. 

With early voting now open across the country until polls close on 14th October, the “hard no” group in the survey of 1,125 voters outnumbered the “hard yes” respondents 42 per cent to 30 per cent. 

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on Tuesday that people tended to support the referendum once they understood the details of the proposal. 

“It is a pretty humble request frankly,” Albanese said on Triple M Hobart radio in Tasmania state. 

“They’re not asking for a right of veto or the right to fund programs or anything like that. They’re just saying, we want to be heard.” 

The referendum, the first since a failed vote in 1999 on making Australia a republic, asks voters whether to recognise Indigenous Australians in the constitution and create a “Voice to Parliament” to give them an avenue to advise the government on matters affecting First Nations Australians. 

Despite backing from sports stars and celebrities, support for the referendum has slumped in recent months, with respondents in a poll last week saying the vote distracted from issues like the cost of living and housing. 

Altering the constitution is notoriously difficult and only eight referendums have passed since 1901 when the country was formed. The proposal must get a majority of votes nationwide and at least four of the six states must back the change. 

Unlike New Zealand or Canada, Australia has no treaty with its Indigenous people, who make up about 3.2 per cent of its population of 26 million. Indigenous groups were marginalized by British colonial rulers and are not mentioned in Australia’s 122-year-old constitution. 

The referendum debate has divided opinion, with supporters arguing the Voice will bring progress for the Aboriginal community, while opponents say it would be divisive. 

Others have described the Voice as tokenism and toothless.

– LEWIS JACKSON, Sydney, Australia/Reuters

The blast on 6th August led to the fall of a Pilbara scrub tree and one square metre of rock from the overhang of a rock shelter estimated to have been inhabited for 40,000-50,000 years. 

Rio Tinto, which did not make a public statement for seven weeks, said it was sorry for the incident, and that it had taken steps to inform appropriate parties. 

“As soon as we identified it, we informed traditional owners, we informed the regulator, we informed our employees at that mine site around what happened and that was for us the appropriate steps to take,” Rio’s iron ore boss Simon Trott told public broadcaster the ABC last week. 

Lawmaker Warren Entsch, who led the parliamentary enquiry into Juukan Gorge, said Rio shouldn’t have caused the damage in the first place, and should have been more transparent in disclosure.

“Clearly no lessons have been learnt,” he told Reuters. 

Rio said it has reformed its business since Juukan including changing its blast procedures to better protect heritage sites, revising internal governance including around policies, procedures and practices, and improving its transparency.

Reaction to the incident has been more muted compared to the outrage over the Juukan Gorge rock shelters so far.

Rio’s initial assessment indicating no structural damage or impacts to cultural materials, which it had assessed via drone footage, had broker Morgan Stanley “somewhat relieved,” it said in a note to clients. 

Voice for heritage
Looming over the incident is Australia’s upcoming Indigenous Voice referendum set for 14th October October that would create a panel to advise parliament on issues affecting the Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islands communities.

James Fitzgerald, legal counsel at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility said investors should be aware that industry self-regulation does not effectively manage the destructive impacts of mining.

“It’s hard to think of a more compelling practical example of the need for an Indigenous Voice in the mining policy debate,” he said. “As long as Indigenous people are not represented at tables where laws and policies affecting them are made, we will witness more unjust and unnecessary outcomes.”

Rio and other major companies have spoken out in support of the Yes vote. But as the vote draws closer, the issue is becoming more contentious and support has dipped. 

Some Indigenous supporters say fear that criticism of the latest incident may further erode backing for the referendum is contributing to the muted reaction.

“In speaking to traditional owners, there is a reluctance to loudly criticise heritage protection issues in the state at the minute in case it galvanises the no vote in the upcoming referendum,” Jamie Lowe, CEO of land rights advisory body National Native Title Council, told Reuters. 

The incident also comes as Western Australia is set to overturn its 2021 Aboriginal cultural heritage protection laws, introduced on 1st July after the destruction of the Juukan Gorge shelters. The law was repealed after just five weeks in force due to opposition from landowners.

A spokesperson for the state department regulating Aboriginal heritage protection said it was in contact with Rio Tinto but it was not investigating the latest incident. 

“Aboriginal people are best placed to speak to matters relating to their cultural heritage, and whether or not it has been impacted. Should the Department receive a complaint from Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, it will act immediately to investigate.”

WGAC said it had not yet complained to the regulator but reserved its rights to do so once it had established the facts and would visit the site in the coming weeks.



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