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Work at a Rio Tinto mine at Yandicoogina, Pilbara, Western Australia on September 4, 2009. (Photo: Christian Sprogoe/AFP/Getty Images)

Aerial view of a Rio Tinto mine at Yandicoogina in Western Australia's Pilbara. (Photo: Christian Sprogoe/AFP/Getty Images) 

Australian Aboriginal Leaders Testify Mining Firm's Gag Clause Silencing Opposition to Destruction of Ancient Sacred Site

"Rio Tinto must acknowledge, and seek to correct, the unequal bargaining positions that have always resulted in a disadvantage for Traditional Owners."

Brett Wilkins

Leaders of an Aboriginal group fighting to save a 46,000-year-old sacred rock shelter told an Australian federal inquiry Monday that lawyers for the Rio Tinto mining company warned them they cannot speak publicly about the issue due to a gag clause in their agreement with the company. 

Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Carol Meredith also told the inquiry members that the Traditional Owners could not apply for a federal emergency suspension to work on the mine in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia's remote Pilbara region without first asking Rio Tinto for permission and providing 30 days' notice.

In May, Rio Tinto—the world's third-largest mining company—used explosives to destroy the sacred cave while working to access AUD$135 million ($96 million U.S.) worth of iron ore there. The company subsequently apologized for blowing up the cave and said it was "committed to listening, learning, and changing."

However, Merdith told the inquiry that Rio Tinto's lawyers reminded PKKP leaders that "we were not to speak about this publicly, that we had the gag clauses and we needed to remain compliant."

"If we were to proceed to seeking an emergency declaration, we were required to seek permission from Rio before we took that option, and we had to give 30 days' notice and table every document we were going to use in that application," Meredith continued. "So for us in the time span available, it was not in fact an option."

Meredith noted that Rio Tinto kept loading explosives around the cave even after promising to delay blasting and even while negotiating with PKKP.

"The whole time we were under the impression they were trying to undertake mitigating actions to save the shelter or lessen the blast," she said. 

Burchell Hayes, a PKKP elder, told the inquiry that the destruction of the sacred shelter "has now left a gaping hole in our ability to pass on our heritage to our children and grandchildren."

"I felt terrible as a grandfather that I was not able to preserve the heritage that was on loan to me," Hayes said.

PKKP cultural and heritage manager Heather Bluith expressed concern to the inquiry that many of the group's artifacts were being held by Rio Tinto in shipping containers, where they were being subjected to—and possibly threatened by—extreme temperatures, while others were being displayed in the company's on-site administration building. Bluith said the owners of the artifacts could not access them without Rio Tinto's permission. 

In August, PKKP leaders said they did not believe Rio Tinto did all it could have done to save the sacred site, and that a "wholesale amendment" of contractual agreements between the group and the company would be required in order for them to work together going forward.

"Rio Tinto must acknowledge, and seek to correct, the unequal bargaining positions that have always resulted in a disadvantage for Traditional Owners," PKKP said at the time. "There was—and is—no true partnership."

Rio Tinto has agreed to a temporary moratorium to protect the Juukan Gorge site. However, another mining company, Fortescue Metals Group, last month applied for a mining license in the surrounding area. PKKP said it was not notified of the move. 

The Banjima, another Aboriginal group on whose land Rio Tinto (along with mining giant BHP) mines iron ore, said in August that it was prevented by a similar gag clause from publicly objecting to the work. 

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