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Juukan Gorge: Learning from the past, to find better ways

In this year of our 150th anniversary, we’re looking both to the past, and to the future.

Last updated: 23 May 2023


We’re reflecting on the things we have done well and can build on for the decades ahead, but also at the times we have failed – and what we must learn and correct so these are never repeated.

In May 2020, the destruction of the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, on the land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people in Western Australia, was a pivotal point in our history. We fell far short of our values as a company and in doing so caused significant pain to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people as well as breaking trust and damaging relationships with our many stakeholders.

The tragedy prompted serious introspection at all levels of Rio and a renewed focus on listening to our stakeholders. We have introduced sweeping reforms in how we engage with Indigenous communities, not only in Australia but around the globe.

The journey to regain the trust we lost will take time. Three years on, we are focused on finding better ways of working with our partners, to respect, value, celebrate and conserve cultural heritage for future generations.

Co-management: The way forward

“In the three years since we destroyed the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge, we’ve been seeking to regain the trust of Traditional Owners and the wider community,” says Simon Trott, Chief Executive, Iron Ore.

“We’re working more closely with Traditional Owners to better protect heritage. We’re moving beyond a transactional approach to truly value relationships and deliver more meaningful outcomes for communities on the ground.”

Nicole Jacobsen leads a team of engagement specialists responsible for managing Rio’s relationships with Traditional Owner groups in the Pilbara, and has been working with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people to design what a better way looks like for the future.

“Co-management means a well-designed approach, which we develop together, for how we want to engage with each other – and how we will work through points on which we don’t naturally agree,” Nicole explains.

In May 2022, we signed a co-management Heads of Agreement with the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, which set a pathway towards a binding agreement.

“It’s about respectful engagement – understanding there are many different views in the room, and all of them are valid. And then working together to find a solution that both sides can support, and with everyone walking away feeling heard.”

For example, we learned from the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people that they want greater, earlier visibility of information from us, and for conversations to start well before decisions are made.

“So rather than Rio Tinto deciding on its preferred option and then consulting Traditional Owners, co-management means we consult on all viable options, and then find the optimal approach that meets both sides’ needs.”

Foundation for the future

We are updating our agreements with Traditional Owner groups in the Pilbara, and with all Indigenous groups that we work with across the globe. This includes reviewing how decisions about cultural heritage are made, and developing a stronger partnership approach to our relationship with Traditional Owners, including improving how local suppliers can compete equally for commercial opportunities within Rio.

Last November, we signed a remedy agreement with the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, and agreed to establish the Juukan Gorge Legacy Foundation.

“It is about self-determination,” says Tim Eckersley, General Manager, Agreements Review. “The Puutu Kunti Kurrama people came to us with their ideas for how we could work together. While nothing would take away the hurt that the destruction of the rock shelters caused, they wanted to engage with us on how we could help them achieve their cultural, social and economic aspirations for the future.

“The Foundation is not for Rio Tinto to manage or guide, but there are opportunities for us to help the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people build commercial capacity and network.”

The remedy agreement established the objectives of the Foundation, how it would be formed, and the support Rio will provide. Work is now underway to set it up as an entity, and to formalise its governance. At the same time, work has begun on the Foundation’s initial projects, which include establishing commercial real estate in Perth where it can be based. Other projects will focus on land access and Connection to Country, exploring a community and health hub, and building commercial capacity for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama people to compete for our contestable spend.

A cultural shift

Nicole says she has seen a significant cultural shift in our business since 2020. “I think we have refocused on our values, and there has been a real willingness to adopt change. We have also become more responsive, so we can get decisions made in reasonable timeframes.”

And while the initial focus of co-management has been our relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, Nicole believes these principles can apply widely to our relationships with other Traditional Owner and Indigenous groups across the world.

“We know these relationships are core to our business and to our future. In the same way we think about safety, we must keep our relationships front of mind in the decisions we make every day, and for the long term. We have to demonstrate we will do what we say we will, to the best of our ability, consistently over decades.”

Nicole adds we would not be where we are today if the senior Elders had not shown the level of grace and respect that they have. “I have so much admiration for them, given the hurt and anger they have felt. They have shared their knowledge and perspectives so openly and honestly, believing we needed to work together to ensure some good comes of this.”

“While I am encouraged about the progress we’re making, I know there is still much work to do,” says Simon Trott.

“We need to keep earning the trust of the people who give us the privilege to operate on their land. That applies not just in Western Australia, but wherever Rio Tinto operates around the world.”

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