The Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia has handed down its interim report on the Juukan Gorge disaster, including several recommendations to further protect Traditional Owners’ cultural heritage rights.

In a scathing report, the Committee said the actions that led to the caves’ destruction were “deliberate” and stemmed from a “culture and institutional structure within Rio Tinto [that] did not adequately prioritise Indigenous heritage”.

“Rio Tinto’s conduct reflects a corporate culture which prioritised commercial gain over the kind of meaningful engagement with Traditional Owners that should form a critical part of their social licence to operate,” the report said.

The seven recommendations contained specific directives to Rio Tinto, the Western Australian Government, the Federal Government, and mining companies at large including a comprehensive overhaul of heritage legislation, moratoriums on cultural heritage destruction, and independent reviews of mining agreements with Traditional Owners, among others.

The Committee highlighted the failure of Western Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) as a contributing factor, recommending the Act be replaced with stronger cultural heritage protections “as a matter of priority”.

The Committee also noted in their report that Rio Tinto were not alone in taking advantage of the shortcomings of both State and Commonwealth law for commercial gain.

“The evidence before the Committee indicates that companies have failed to respect the rights and interests of Traditional Owners in a variety of ways,” the report said.

The Committee condemned gag clauses commonplace during agreement-making between mining companies and Traditional Owners, suggesting Rio Tinto and other mining companies remove any such clauses or restrictions from current agreements.

PKKP Traditional Owners’ former representative body, Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC), were also called out in the report, with the Committee noting their awareness of concerns with the “quality of representation” provided to the PKKP people in their negotiations with Rio Tinto.

The Committee noted in particular concerns with whether YMAC “made sufficient efforts to communicate the complex and lengthy agreements to the PKKP prior to signing”.

This comes after YMAC CEO Simon Hawkins fronted a hearing in October, saying passing on Rio Tinto’s draft Section 18 notice — which would legally allow the destruction — was not YMAC’s responsibility.

Senator Pat Dodson took to Twitter after the report’s release, saying the destruction of Juukan Gorge was a “disaster for our nation and the world”.

Rio Tinto has acknowledged the report’s release in a statement, saying they are committed to learning from the catastrophe and willing to make changes within the company to instil a culture that better respects cultural heritage.

“We have made important changes to the way we manage cultural heritage sites and our relationships with Traditional Owners, including a commitment to modernise our agreements,” said Rio Tinto Chair Simon Thompson.

“We recognise the importance of ensuring relationships with Traditional Owners are built on partnerships based on mutual benefit, respect and trust.”

Rio Tinto has already made some changes since the blasts, including appointing a senior Indigenous leader as chief adviser to the CEO, Indigenous Affairs and investing $50 million into increasing Indigenous employment and leadership opportunities in the company’s Australian operations.

The full report from the inquiry is set to be handed down in 2021.

By Hannah Cross