Opinion

Strategic Ignorance: Rio Tinto’s Destruction of Sacred Juukan Caves

How can we excuse mining giant Rio Tinto’s unconscionable destruction of a 46,000 year old Pilbara Aboriginal Heritage site on the grounds of “not knowing”, asks Rebecca Lawrence, when the communication process with Traditional Owners is designed to fail?

Karijini National Park, Pilbara, Western Australia, Australia. Image via Shutterstock: 1037499214.

Shock is reverberating around the world over Rio Tinto’s recent deliberate destruction of rock-shelters in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilabara region – a site of immense cultural and spiritual significance to the Traditional Owners, represented by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinkikura (PKKP) Aboriginal corporation, and one with 46,000 years of heritage – all in the name of the expansion of iron-ore mining. The ensuring media debate has so far tended to focus on the destruction being legal but amoral, or the lax regulatory process that allowed it to happen. But little has been said of Rio’s claims of ignorance over the significance of the site, or of the failure of their engagement process with Aboriginal people to reveal that the destruction of the site would create such a backlash.

Rio have stated that they were not aware of the requests from the PKKP for the site to be preserved: “we are sorry that the recently expressed concerns of the PKKP did not arise though the engagements that have taken place over many years under the agreement that governs our operation on their country”.

In these tightly controlled spaces of negotiated “agreements” between mining companies and Indigenous groups, where consent is often “manufactured” under the threat of take-this-deal-or-we’ll-take-you-to-court kind of corporate strong-arming, there is very little room for protest by Indigenous groups. In some cases, community dissent is explicitly prohibited in mining agreements under the threat of withheld benefits. In my experience, in working with Indigenous communities in another geographical context – in Sápmi, the Sami homelands of northern Scandinavia – agreements and engagement processes often serve to stifle genuine disagreement, even where they don’t explicitly prohibit dissent. Indeed, it is generally in the direct interests of mining companies to limit protest and conflict. Once an agreement is in place, the question is rarely asked if mining expansions can or should go ahead; instead, an agreement is seen as a vehicle for ensuring certainty. The problem is that when Indigenous groups actually try to stop developments and expansions going ahead, the corporation and its people are so entrenched in a worldview that privileges agreements and collaborations that they cannot, or will not, see disagreements, and their potential fall-outs, when they are right in front of them.

“In these tightly controlled spaces of “agreements” between mining companies and Indigenous groups, where consent is often “manufactured” under the threat of take-this-deal-or-we’ll-take-you-to-court kind of corporate strong-arming, there is very little room for protest by Indigenous groups.”

Another problem is that these kinds of mining agreements presume consent but do not actively seek it. That is, they presume a blanket Indigenous consent will cover the company forever, yet this consent is often manufactured via an agreement making process in which Aboriginal communities never likely had any real opportunity to say yes or no to development. But consent is something that must be constantly negotiated. Why should the onus be on the PKKP to make their protests known to Rio? If Rio really is an industry leader on Indigenous engagement, wouldn’t it be in their interests to make sure that they know they have consent, rather than presuming it?

And so, we return to this question of knowing, or not knowing, the things that really matter. Perhaps Rio never asked the right questions about Juukan Gorge because they didn’t really want to know the answers. The answers might well have meant impeding their mining expansion, and challenging their view that they were ever in agreement at all with the PKKP over the future of the site.

“Rio never asked the right questions about Juukan Gorge because they didn’t really want to know the answers. The answers might well have meant impeding their mining expansion, and challenging their view that they were ever in agreement at all with the [local Traditional Owners] over the future of the site.”

It seems that Rio thought doing the usual “salvage” of artefacts was a sufficient outcome, where after the site itself could be legitimately destructed (a typically western view of cultural heritage management, and one shared by other mining companies, like BHP). Obviously, the PKKP thought differently, but Rio either did not know this, or chose to perform ignorance. Both options look bad. In the case of the former, not knowing looks like negligence, and pretending not to know, or performing strategic ignorance, is just plain duplicitous. The only thing worse is admitting you know, but saying you’ll go ahead anyway, which was BHP’s initial position on its plan to destroy other sites in the Pilbara.

Either way, it’s not a good look, and will increase the pressure on Rio to know more about its impacts at other contentious mining sites, such as the controversial Ranger mine, surrounded by the Kakadu National Park, which is dual listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for both cultural and natural value. At Ranger, where Rio is majority shareholder, as closure and rehabilitation obligations are fast approaching, strategic ignorance is insidiously present. Even though the mine has been the focus of various social impact assessments and social impact monitoring programs over years, no one knows what the social impacts of the Ranger mine have been, or what the social impacts of closure will be, or if they do, they certainly aren’t publicly disclosing it. Rehabilitation costs of the site have increased with every estimate, but Rio hasn’t yet even delved into the question of financial security post-closure to fund monitoring and remediation works, should rehabilitation fail. The toxic contaminant mixtures predicted to come off site haven’t yet been modelled, and no one seems to know what to do if they do end up exceeding environmental thresholds.

The deliberate destruction of an Aboriginal cultural site at Jukkan Gorge draws attention because the image of literally blasting away a significant site is a spectacular kind of tragedy. But we would do well to pay equal attention to the mining industry’s imperatives to keep a lid on other kinds of disasters: like the slow-moving catastrophe of the uranium mine surrounded by Kakadu national park, that will continue to leach toxic tailings into the surrounding environment thousands of years into the future.


Rebecca Lawrence is a Senior Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. Rebecca joins the institute in 2020 after her time at the Department of Political Science, Stockholm University as Research Fellow. She is Chief Investigator for a major research project funded by the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development on the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Australia. Rebecca is also funded by the Norwegian Research Council for a project concerned with the integration of Indigenous knowledge systems into environmental decision making. Rebecca Lawrence is the Research Lead on Resource Legacies and Impacted Communities.


For an interview, contact Rebecca on r.lawrence@sydney.edu.au.

For media enquiries, contact Vivienne Reiner, University of Sydney Media and Public Relations Adviser, +61 2 9351 2390 or vivienne.reiner@sydney.edu.au.