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Traditional Owners strike cultural heritage deal with embattled Sandfire Resources

David Prestipino -

Traditional Owners have received an apology from Sandfire Resources amid a government probe into whether its destruction of two Aboriginal artefact sites in Western Australia breached the state's cultural heritage protection laws.

The embattled copper-zinc explorer also moved to restore its reputation by agreeing to involve Yugunga-Nya Elders in the future protection of cultural heritage sites, which was first requested in 2016.

The two parties have agreed to map issues, steps and relationships for the ongoing protection of cultural heritage at the DeGrussa copper mine after Traditional Owners called for restitution and the sacking of Sandfire CEO, Brendan Harris over the destruction of one site and disturbance of another between 2017 and 2018.

Sandfire also confirmed on Friday external lawyers would investigate its process failures that led to the destruction and why Traditional Owners and the government were not immediately notified.

Mr Harris said the findings of that investigation would be made available first to the Yugunga-Nya people, before being shared with industry and Sandfire stakeholders.

He said the company would continue to cooperate with the Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage's own investigation.

"We wish to extend our sincere gratitude to the Yugunga-Nya for the time they spent with us on country, the stories they shared and the opportunity they have provided for us to work together to ensure we protect their cultural heritage as we undertake our closure and rehabilitation activities at DeGrussa," he said.

"While we cannot undo what has been done, we can make sure we do the right thing as we seek to rebuild trust and earn the respect of the Yugunga-Nya."

Sandfire's deal to work with Traditional Owners at its WA mine came after the two groups met on Country recently and agreed to a framework, with Yugunga-Nya elders explaining the cultural significance of certain sites at the DeGrussa operation in WA's Mid-West.

Lawyer Franklin Gaffney, who is representing the Yugunga-Nya people, recently told the ABC Sandire had offered the group the contract to fence off all remaining heritage sites.

"Well that should've occurred in any event after they were identified in the heritage survey reports," he said.

"One of the options that could be explored is assisting the group into housing ... and owning their own homes."

Yugunga-Nya Elder, Andrew Gentle Senior, insisted Friday's apology did not mean the issue was now water under the bridge for traditional owners and the miner.

"We are not getting married, engaged, or even dating Sandfire," he said.

"We still distrust Sandfire because they destroyed our heritage and didn't bother to tell us.

"However, we want to try to rebuild trust. To do this, Sandfire's senior management and the Board must actively work with us, not manage us.

"Sandfire need to show they are sincere because since 2016 they have showed nothing but disrespect for Yugunga-Nya people and Aboriginal culture.

"I hope the recent steps the current leadership have taken shows they are prepared to work hard to rebuild the relationship."

Sandfire and the Yugunga-Nya's joint announcement on Friday to the ASX also included a concession from the miner it should have consulted the Yugunga-Nya if cultural artefacts would be disturbed, and then determined their cultural significance and undertake detailed recording of them.

Then if it still decided to proceed, the company should have considered lodging a Section 18 application, as required under the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act.

The government probe will investigate exactly when the Indigenous artefacts were wholly destroyed, with a 12-month statute of limitations law a potential roadblock to any penalties.

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