How Rio blew its reputation to smithereens in the Juukan Gorge scandal

At around this time last year, a team of Rio Tinto engineers were toiling in the searing heat of the West Australian outback.

Over the course of several days, they would drill hundreds of blast-holes in the red sandstone, before loading them with high explosives.

Their mission was to expand the site of Rio’s Brockman 4 mine in the Pilbara region, and dig up an estimated £100million of iron ore buried in the rock. 

Fury: Earlier this month Rio faced a shareholders revolt, which centred on the millions in pay and bonuses handed to ousted boss Jean-Sebastian Jacques and other disgraced executives

Fury: Earlier this month Rio faced a shareholders revolt, which centred on the millions in pay and bonuses handed to ousted boss Jean-Sebastian Jacques and other disgraced executives

With an estimated 3bn tons of iron ore reserves in the Pilbara alone, this was not a big project by Rio’s standards. But it has proved to be an enormously costly one.

Lying at the centre of the blast site was the Juukan Gorge, a sacred site for the local Aboriginal people which housed two 46,000 year-old rock shelters. 

When the detonation button was pushed on the morning of May 24 last year, the caves were blown to smithereens – along with much of Rio’s reputation.

The Anglo-Australian mining giant made things worse by initially claiming it was all one big misunderstanding, despite being fully aware of the significance of the site and receiving increasingly frantic pleas to abandon the blast from the local Indigenous population.

As a devastating Parliamentary inquiry in Australia would later conclude: ‘Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway.’

The shockwaves of the explosion are still felt today.

Earlier this month Rio faced a massive pay revolt from shareholders, which centred on the many millions in pay and bonuses handed to ousted boss Jean-Sebastien Jacques and other disgraced executives.

But the anger of shareholders pales in comparison with that felt by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP), who live across this vast, iron-ore rich region.

They say they have been left ‘traumatised’ by the destruction of the caves and cannot bring themselves to forgive Rio.

A year on, two prominent members of the PKKP visited the Juukan Gorge to mark the anniversary of the fateful blast.

Burchell Hayes, a director of the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, remembers vividly when he heard the news.

He was travelling from Port Hedland east along Australia’s north-western coast to the mining town of Karratha with his four grandchildren.

‘It was devastating for us,’ he said. ‘You felt the emptiness that something was taken away from you. Something that was so significant to you and our community.’

Although Rio has pledged to compensate the PKKP, Mr Hayes said: ‘No amount of money will ever replace that – nothing. I’d rather have the rock shelter back than you write me a cheque. That’s how I feel about it.’

He was accompanied on the trip by John Ashburton, another distinguished member of the PKKP. Juukan Gorge was named after his grandfather Tommy, known as Juukan.

‘We are the caretakers of this land. We need to preserve what’s there,’ he said. ‘To us it’s not rocks and carvings. To us its precious. It means something to us.’

The PKKP people believe the 1300 ft long, sandstone gorge is where the spirits of their ancestors have come to rest.

It includes a sacred rock pool which forms the shape of a snake’s head entering the ground. This too has been severely damaged.

In recent decades, various archaeological studies – some of them funded by Rio – have uncovered more than 7,000 artefacts in the gorge. 

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Among the most stunning finds have been a 30,000-year-old grinding stone, and the remains of a 4,000-year-old belt made of human hair that has been genetically identified to match ancient ancestors of the PKKP.

Sacred: The two 46,000 year-old rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in the West Australian outback which were destroyed by Rio Tinto last year

Sacred: The two 46,000 year-old rock shelters in Juukan Gorge in the West Australian outback which were destroyed by Rio Tinto last year

Mr Ashburton and Mr Hayes could not venture too close to the caves themselves as it so dangerous underfoot.

The painstaking work to restore them – which Rio has committed to doing itself – has yet to begin.

For all the vast resources as its disposal, it faces a fiendishly difficult task. One of the two caves – identified as a place of the ‘highest archaeological significance in Australia’ – has been completely destroyed. There is hope that the other cave can be salvaged in some form, once the rubble has finally been cleared.

But Rio has to do more than rebuild the caves to restore its reputation, and mend its broken relationship with Australia’s indigenous population.

Three senior executives, including the chief executive, the boss of the iron ore division and the corporate affairs director have all been fired over the debacle. 

Like rival BHP Billiton, Rio has also pledged to trawl through thousands of heritage sites that could be affected by mine expansions. 

It insists it has learned from the mistakes. A few months after the Juukan Gorge incident, Rio pledged to protect a 43,000-year-old rock shelter on the fringe of its Silvergrass iron ore mine in the Pilbara.

Along with BHP, it has committed to scrap controversial gag clauses which prevent Aboriginal groups from speaking out as a price for any royalties they receive. 

Rio has also promised to work more closely with indigenous people in future rather than speaking to them as an after-thought. 

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This will be one of the key roles of Simon Trott, the chief executive of Rio’s vast iron ore operations. ‘The events at Juukan Gorge should never have happened,’ he told the Mail. ‘We need to learn from that and make sure it does not happen again. 

That’s the focus of me and my team – to put in place those steps and to really engage and listen to traditional owners. We acknowledge that will take some time – we have a long way to go.’

But this is not all about Rio Tinto. The Parliamentary inquiry into Juukan Gorge found in its interim report last summer that Rio’s ruthless focus on the maximisation of profit and scant regard for Aboriginal heritage was ‘systemic’ across the mining industry.

It said mining companies have exploited weak federal and state laws which provide little protection for traditional owners of the land. 

New legislation is slowly working its way through the Western Australian parliament to address this.

Queensland MP Warren Entsch, who chairs the Parliamentary inquiry into Juukan Gorge, described the incident as a ‘game changer’ for the entire mining industry.

‘There is now a much greater level of awareness,’ he told the Mail. ‘Rio and others are really keen to avoid this sort of thing happening again in the future.

‘The ideal result to come out of all this would be that this sort of destruction of cultural heritage never happens again.’

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