BHP is leading the pack in iron ore mining as its competitor Rio Tinto continues to reel from fractured relationships with Traditional Owners in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

Rio Tinto has seen a steep decline in their iron ore shipments from the Pilbara, with the mining giant reportedly having shipped 76.3 million tonnes in the June quarter, 12 per cent less than the same period in 2020.

The miner also reported total production was down 5 per cent for the first half of this year.

With Rio Tinto behind the eight ball, BHP reported their sellings at $US158.15 a tonne in the first half of the year, ahead of Rio Tinto’s $US154.90 a tonne.

The decline has been attributed to shutdowns, reduced processing plant availability, sustained wet weather and COVID-19 restrictions.

But a major factor is likely the severed relationship the mining giant has with Traditional Owners across the region.

“We continue to prioritise engagement with Traditional Owners and cultural heritage management in daily site operations,” the company said in their second quarter production results.

“To date, 2021 production has been reduced by around 2 million tonnes as mine plans have been amended, and buffers and exclusion zones have been incorporated to protect areas of high cultural significance.”

In 2020, Rio Tinto deliberately destroyed 46,000-year-old caves in Juukan Gorge to extract $188 million worth of iron ore. Last month, it was revealed the company was involved in the dumping of heritage material from the Marandoo mine into a Darwin tip in the 1990s.

Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC), whose Country the Marandoo mine operates on, have cut ties with Rio Tinto upon the news of heritage destruction at Marandoo, and a moratorium on mining has been placed on the Juukan Gorge site.

“We have apologised to WGAC for our past actions at Marandoo and are committed to meeting with them again to discuss these issues, and agreement modernisation, at a time when they are ready to re-engage with us,” said the report.

The company also shared that their focus going forward would be “to jointly determine an appropriate remedy for the destruction of Juukan Gorge, with discussions to progress in the coming months”.

In a different move, BHP has recently requested the South Australian Government consider harsher penalties for companies who illegally damage Indigenous heritage sites, in a submission to the State Government’s heritage law inquiry.

“BHP supports a material increase in the fines and penalties … to reflect public concerns and act as a deterrent to unlawful damage.”

While the SA Government is investigating its heritage laws, the Western Australian Government is drafting its new heritage Bill and concerns have been raised that WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson “isn’t listening” to Aboriginal people.

Currently, the Minister has full power to approve or deny applications that could impact culturally significant sites. Traditional Owners are able to appeal decisions, but only after they have been made.

Kimberley Land Council Chair Anthony Watson is calling for a three-way discussion between industry, Aboriginal people and government.

“If Mr Dawson is genuine about putting Aboriginal people at the centre of decision-making he should allow for industry and Aboriginal people to sit down together to come up with a joint position,” he said.

Backing Traditional Owners, the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists Inc. (AACAI) and the Australian Archaeological Association (AAA) have both made submissions for the reform of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, including the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill.

In a statement, the organisations said that they were “deeply disappointed” by the draft Bill.

“Having engaged in more than two years of consultation, we were deeply disappointed in the draft Bill that has been shared, which was found wanting by respondents in all sectors, and to find that our carefully researched submissions were effectively ignored,” they said.

The AACAI and AAA said that Traditional Owners have the “right to manage their heritage, especially when considering impacts of development”.

They noted the draft Bill failed to support Traditional Owners, failed to provide ongoing support for Traditional Owner-led Local Heritage Services, failed to require critical stages of evaluation and consultation necessary for free and informed decisions and “used confusing and vague terminology that, if enacted, would have undermined confidence and created conflict”.

It’s understood the WA heritage Bill will be introduced to Parliament later this year.

By Rachael Knowles