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'Sucked dry': AGM told Rio Tinto won't mine Jabiluka, but concerns grow over Pilbara water extraction

David Prestipino -

Rio Tinto's relationships with Traditional Owners in the Pilbara came under the spotlight during its 2024 annual shareholder meeting in Brisbane on Thursday.

Robe River Kuruma Aboriginal Corporation director Leanne Evans stood up during the meeting and urged the board to stop pumping of millions of litres of water Rio extracts from Robe River Kuruma Country, in the vast North West region of Western Australia.

Ms Evans told the Rio Tinto board her Country's bloodlife was being "sucked dry" and urged company management to turn off the pumps, which she said were extracting between 6 to 8 gigalitres from the Bungaroo aquifer each year.

"The water you are pumping from the Bungaroo is killing our country, it's sucked dry," Ms Evans told the AGM.

"I came to Brisbane to speak with the board of Rio Tinto face to face, because the letters do not work. 

"The Robe River is a bloodline for our culture, our heritage and our people."

CEO Jakob Stausholm said Rio Tinto had worked hard to restore its reputational damage, after the destruction of 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelters in the Pilbara in 2020, citing clean energy partnerships with the Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation on renewable projects in the Pilbara as an example of co-management and co-development to share prosperity.

Mr Stausholm, who described his visit to the Robe River site two months ago as "an emotional experience", told the meeting he was confident of reaching a solution "that could work for the Kuruma people as well."

"This is a very long and difficult history stemming back from the 1960s," he told the AGM.

The West Pilbara (Bungaroo) Water Supply Scheme was established in 2011 to help supply water to five Pilbara coastal towns approximately 200km from a Rio Tinto borefield on Robe River Kuruma Country, which the company then extracts from the system for mining-related operations.

Ms Evans said the Robe River Kuruma People were named after the Robe River, which they describe as their lifeblood, but say the Country has been drying up for years and being destroyed, as the Bungaroo feeds into the Robe.

"For 13 years our pleas have been ignored, including invitations to the board in 2019 and 2023 to meet with us," Ms Evans said. 

RRKAC chief executive Anthony Galante said Rio Tinto representatives had conceded the amount of water being extracted from Robe River Kuruma Country, particularly from the Bungaroo, was not sustainable.

"Water bodies, such as Jajiwurra and the Bungaroo water supply, are inextricably linked to the cultural identity, traditional practices, and historical narratives of the Robe River Kuruma people," he said. 

Mr Stausholm said learning what was important to Elders and other members of the Kuruma tribe on his recent site visit was an essential element of the trip and a moving experience.

"I went there with our CEO of Iron Ore, Simon Trott, ... and I want to take the opportunity here to again thank all the Elders and everybody from the Kuruma tribe to meet us and show us around, and teach us about what matters to you and learn more about the impact mining has on nature," he said. 

"Rio Tinto came into Robe River as part of the acquisition of North in 2001. And I very clearly note that, yes, we have made agreements in the past, but the question is how do we actually make agreements as equals? 

"We certainly came with all the intention of finding the right way for the future between the Robe River Kuruma people and Rio Tinto.

Mr Stausholm said that, despite some differences of opinion, he remained convinced of finding a pathway of mutual benefit for the Kuruma people and the company. 

"The thing I would encourage is just continued dialogue between our teams and your teams," he told the AGM. 

"It was quite emotional that day ... but I hope at least that you could see that we were turning up and we were listening to your concerns, and I really do believe that we can address those together."

At the meeting Rio also ruled out uranium development at Jabiluka, a contentious lease area near its Ranger uranium mine that is surrounded by - but not part of - Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory, after strong opposition by Traditional Owners.

Company chairman Dominic Barton told the AGM: "We support the Mirarr people in their strong opposition to the development of Jabiluka, and our focus is only on rehabilitation."

He was also grilled on the iron ore giant's rival bid for Anglo American after BHP's $60 billion offer.

With several other market competitors considering takeover bids for Anglo, Rio Tinto said it was confident of expanding its copper footprint during the global transition to renewable energy.

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