After Rio Tinto Group CEO, Jean-Sebastien Jacques sent his submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia’s inquiry into the Juukan Gorge blasts, questions have arisen over the role of Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) in the caves’ destruction.

According to Jacques’ submission, Native Title representative body YMAC represented Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura (PKKP) Traditional Owners from 2003, during their early engagement with Rio Tinto, up until July 2019.

Initial commercial negotiations between 2004 and 2006 saw Rio Tinto voice its preference for a project by project approach, however the PKKP People, represented by YMAC, opted for a ‘whole of Country’ or claim wide agreement. Rio Tinto accepted this request and the Binding Initial Agreement (BIA) was signed mid-2006.

Rio Tinto’s submission noted the Brockman 4 iron ore mine was “central to [Rio Tinto’s] expansion plans” and was listed as a ‘Priority Project’ in the BIA.

“In relation to Priority Project operations, PKKP agreed to conduct cultural heritage surveys and not oppose any section 18 application,” reads Rio Tinto’s submission to the inquiry.

“This was a direct function of the consent to operate on PKKP Country that the BIA represented.”

In 2013, YMAC hired an anthropologist to conduct an ethnographic survey with PKKP Traditional Owners to identify potential culturally significant sites. According to Jacques’ submission, this was for the purpose of a Section 18 consent application under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA).

The subsequent report noted significant sites “were not able to be avoided by the proposed development” and recorded PKKP Traditional Owners’ requests for further survey coverage to ensure a proper assessment of the area.

Some months later, in October, Rio Tinto emailed a draft copy of the Section 18 application to YMAC and requested comments be made by October 11, as they were lodging on October 17.

The draft noted six sites would be impacted, including the Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 caves.

The submission does not say whether YMAC provided any comments by the deadline, however the BIA from 2006 bound PKKP Traditional Owners to no interference with Section 18 applications.

On December 31 2013, the Section 18 consent was granted.

As details about YMAC’s involvement come to light, questions are arising as to whether YMAC CEO Simon Hawkins will make a submission to the inquiry as the PKKP Traditional Owners’ former representative. Hawkins has been contacted for comment.

By Hannah Cross