Rio Tinto has sent letters to 12 Traditional Owner groups across Western Australia’s Pilbara region, vowing to improve social and economic benefits provided for mining their lands.

The letter recognises Rio Tinto’s need to “rebuild the trust of Traditional Owners” in the wake of the Juukan Gorge blasts.

Signed by Rio Tinto’s acting Chief Executive of Iron Ore, Ivan Vella, the letter also suggests controversial gag clauses preventing Traditional Owners from speaking out about against Rio Tinto activity would no longer exist.

A copy of the letter obtained by NIT says Rio Tinto has committed to “not enforcing any clauses in our agreements that restrict Traditional Owners from raising concerns about cultural heritage matters with anyone”.

However, Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC) Director Tony Bevan said it is still unclear as to whether gag clauses will be eliminated altogether.

“It’s suggestive there may still be gag clauses on all other legislation … or any other law other than heritage law.”

While it also outlined Traditional Owners will “maximise the full range of benefits of economic and social opportunities” as a result of Rio Tinto’s operations on Country, Bevan noted important concerns, like the payment of royalties, are not addressed in the letter.

“There are more areas that Eastern Guruma would like to talk about in terms of the agreement than what’s here in the letter,” he said.

“We’d like to talk about other things like access to Country, paying royalties on all mines and regional conservation and environmental programs to restore Country.”

Vella also pledges in the letter to “reassess all activities with the potential to impact heritage sites”, and to consult with the Eastern Guruma people where information is “incomplete or not current”.

“Reassessing activities doesn’t necessarily indicate what the conclusion is going to be,” said Bevan.

The letter concluded that Rio Tinto is looking forward to “working together in the spirit of partnership, and to ensure that our operations on Eastern Guruma Country provide a pathway to meeting our mutual objectives”.

“I think we can only take them and the letter at face value. It remains to be seen what is done once we actually get into negotiations in a more meaningful way,” said Bevan.

“We’ll take it at face value and trust that Rio are going to do the right thing.”

By Grace Crivellaro