Puutu Kunti Kurrama Pinikura (PKKP) Traditional Owners were warned by Rio Tinto lawyers about the gag clauses in their participation agreement as they desperately tried to save the Juukan Gorge caves.

The 46,000-year-old caves were destroyed in May as part of Rio Tinto’s efforts to mine $135 million worth of iron ore on PKKP lands.

In front of the Juukan Gorge inquiry on Monday, PKKP Aboriginal Corporation (PKKPAC) CEO Carol Meredith said Traditional Owners were told they had to comply with their agreement.

“We were hamstrung, and we were reminded not to speak about this publicly, that we had the gag clauses and we needed to remain compliant,” Meredith said.

The CEO said Traditional Owners were also required to seek permission from Rio Tinto before seeking an emergency declaration to stop works on the land.

“We had to give 30 days’ notice and table every document that we were going to use in that application,” she said.

“In the time span available, it was not … an option.”

When asked of the implications of breaching the agreement, Meredith said Traditional Owners would lose all benefits—financial and otherwise.

Northern Territory MP Warren Snowden also asked if PKKP people would be able to speak to any approaching media organisations after the hearing, to which multiple PKKP members responded “no”.

Meredith added that as a result of many years of constraint, the PKKP were reluctant to speak openly about these sorts of matters.

“We were instructed by the Elders, our land committee and our board that from the date we initially released our media piece about Juukan, we would only speak of the grief that the people felt,” she said.

“In that way, we were remaining compliant while still being able to have a voice in this disaster.”

Meredith said the PKKP people and Rio Tinto are currently in discussions regarding the renegotiation of certain clauses in the agreement.

“We have been concentrating fully on presenting to the Senate and completing our submission and having considerable input to the Aboriginal Heritage Act changes,” she said.

She said PKKPAC’s next major priority is a face-to face meeting.

“There may be further conversations with Rio [Tinto] with more frequency ahead of us. We have an invitation to engage with their board sometime before the end of the year.”

By Darby Ingram