MELBOURNE (Reuters) – An inquiry into the destruction of ancient rock shelters for an iron ore mine should recommend in its report that Australia adopt national heritage protection standards, the head of an Aboriginal heritage management group said on Friday.
The parliamentary panel is set to issue findings and recommendations next week after a 16-month inquiry into how Rio Tinto Ltd last year legally destroyed the sites at Juukan Gorge, Western Australia, that showed evidence of human habitation over 46,000 years, from the last Ice Age.
In its interim report in December, the inquiry said that Rio should pay restitution to the traditional owners of the area and laid out broader industry guidance that included reviewing consent practices.
The inquiry has held 23 hearings and received close to 200 submissions.
Heritage legislation that differs from state to state has not been effective, said Jamie Lowe, chief executive of the National Native Title Council (NNTC), which has been speaking with the resources industry, the government and investors.
“We are hoping for a recommendation of a national standard for heritage protection across the country. That needs to be a high bar, and the states need to adhere to it,” he told Reuters.
“First nations need to be in control of their heritage.”
Lowe welcomed what he said was a change in approach of miners such as BHP Group since the incident, saying they were now giving more weight to the principle of free, prior and informed consent.
“They are having a go and trying to change the way they do business… You have to give them some credit.”
The risk for developers is that if they don’t have the support of traditional owner groups early enough in the planning process, big projects could be delayed.
Rio Tinto lowered its production guidance on Thursday, part of which it said was due to issues around heritage protection.
“There’s short-term stuff but we’re in here for the long haul and that’s where you see change,” said Lowe.
(Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Gareth Jones)