The NSW Aboriginal Land Council (NSWALC) has directed its fund managers to withdraw their financial investments into Rio Tinto after the company’s demolition of Juukan Gorge sacred rock shelters in WA’s Pilbara region.
The mining blast at Rio Tinto’s Brockman 4 iron ore mine destroyed two 46,000-year-old rock shelters on the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Peoples’ land. The culturally significant rock shelters dated back to before the last Ice Age.
One of the nation’s largest Aboriginal membership-based organisations, NSWALC has an investment portfolio totalling $650 million. The Land Council said their investment in Rio Tinto is a “small fraction” of their portfolio.
“Rio Tinto was once rightly regarded as a leader in building positive relationships with Aboriginal people, but this is no longer the case,” said NSWALC CEO, James Christian.
“Until Rio Tinto can demonstrate that it is not planning the destruction of other sites of cultural significance, we will let our money do the talking. We call on other investment holders to do the same.”
NSWALC hopes their move will trigger action from other organisations.
“This will also put other companies on notice that we intend to act. We are socially and morally responsible for what we invest in—when companies conduct themselves with disregard for the impact on our people, we will take action,” Christian said.
The Land Council has also recently joined an alliance of 20 Land Councils and Native Title bodies calling for reform of outdated Aboriginal heritage legislation and practices.
Organisations within the new alliance include the Central, Northern, Kimberley and Cape York Land Councils, the National Native Title Council and the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO).
“It’s time for industry and governments to understand our distress, our hurt and our concern and work with us,” Christian said.
“While the Pilbara is currently hitting headlines, it is only the tip of the iceberg—governments across the political spectrum over many years have not cared enough to protect Aboriginal heritage.
“The national alliance is calling on all Australians to send a very clear message to government and industry that enough is enough. We are calling for an urgent review of heritage legislation at Federal, State and Territory level.
“We are calling for a moratorium on any works that could impact Aboriginal cultural heritage. It’s really imperative that governments—Federal and State and Territory—sit with us and design improvements because it will require a unified approach.”
The WA Government has already ruled out a moratorium on work under the current Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) until new legislation is finalised.
Rio Tinto has faced national and international criticism since the caves’ destruction, with national superannuation funds AustralianSuper and Cbus expressing their disappointment.
National Reconciliation body, Reconciliation Australia also revoked the company’s Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) in response to the blasts.
International investors of the company, such as Aberdeen Standard Investments, have also questioned Rio Tinto’s governance.
While Rio Tinto has formally apologised and launched an internal inquiry into the incident, a leaked recording of an internal staff meeting suggests the apology was not for the blasts.
According to the Australian Financial Review, Rio Tinto Iron Ore CEO, Chris Salisbury, said to staff the company has only apologised “for the distress the event caused” instead of the event itself.
The CEO was also recorded noting the company had the backing of “political leaders of both sides”.
On June 11, the Senate referred an inquiry into the detonation to the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia. The inquiry is set to report by September 30.
By Rachael Knowles