Aboriginal group says remediation at Juukan rock shelters has begun

By Melanie Burton

MELBOURNE (Reuters) -The Aboriginal group whose rock shelters Rio Tinto Ltd destroyed for an iron ore mine three years ago said remediation efforts have begun at the site under a co-management model that gives them more agency over mine development.

The destruction of the culturally significant site at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia which sheltered the group's ancestors over 46,000 years triggered a public outcry and the exit of Rio's CEO, chairman and two senior executives.

It also set off a government inquiry, paving the way for stronger legal protection and more of a say for Indigenous groups over how their traditional lands are impacted by mining.

"The events of May 24, 2020 ... were distressing to the PKKP community and will remain that way for their lifetimes," the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation (PKKP) said in a statement.

To ensure the devastation does not occur again, the group is working towards a co-management process of land development with mining companies, land committee chair Burchell Hayes said. As well as Rio Tinto, the world's fourth largest iron ore miner, Fortescue Metals Group mines on PKKP land.

Rio Tinto said it had made many changes to deliver better outcomes for the PKKP including moving to a co-management model and signing a remedy agreement to develop cultural and social projects but there was more to do to build trust.

Fortescue said it was working towards a co-management model with PKKP and that discussions were well-advanced.

The committee has asked Rio Tinto to rehabilitate areas surrounding the two impacted rock shelters to a pre-mining landscape and seeding and replanting the area with native plants has begun.

The PKKP said new laws in Western Australia better protected their heritage sites, but miners still need to gain the free, prior and informed consent of the Indigenous groups with which they work.

"As Traditional Owners, the PKKP People can coexist with companies that wish to impact our traditional country but the best path forward for these mining companies is stepping up to the co-management agreement."

(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)