Cultural heritage is the aspects of a community’s past and present that it considers valuable and wants to pass on to future generations. It can include everything from landscapes, artefacts and archaeological sites to language, art and music, and customary practices like hunting and gathering.
Many of our operations are on or near land that is sacred to many, including Indigenous communities. We recognise the cultural, spiritual and physical connections that Indigenous people often have with land, water, flora and fauna. We are committed to working in a way that respects their rights and reflects their perspectives.
How we Protect Cultural Heritage
Long before we start to mine the land, we do cultural and environmental studies to understand the area. We work with people who live there, work there and know the land. We also employ archaeologists and scientists, and partner with universities, government and Indigenous organisations to find new and better ways to preserve cultural heritage and reduce our impact.
Every Rio Tinto operation has a system in place to identify and understand cultural heritage values, their significance and options for managing any issues that arise. This includes providing cultural awareness training to employees and contractors so they understand the significance of sites and how they must be treated. Where we have to disturb land, we work with local people to make sure we rehabilitate the land appropriately afterwards. Where possible, we also enable Indigenous peoples to maintain access to sites of cultural significance to maintain their connection and customary practices.
Stories from Stones
He has spent the past 40 years studying the rock art – also known as petroglyphs – of the Burrup Peninsula, and is working tirelessly to ensure it is preserved for future generations:
“We know from the rock art that people were in the Pilbara region from at least 42,000 years ago.
It's no accident the local Murujuga people call them the 'stories from the stones', for it is a beautiful and fascinating place: Look closely and you can see Mona Lisas by the thousands.
‘Rock art' is one of those terms we use, but in fact it's more than art: there are also deep cultural meanings embedded in the art as well.
It’s also an historical record: there are two major changes over the 40,000 years the rock art was made – the Ice Age and a change in the sea level. As a result you can see different animals in the rock art: you see kangaroos and emus in the earlier art, and fish and turtles in the later art. You can also see extinct fauna, like the Tasmanian tiger.
Rio Tinto holds the same values as I do as an archeologist in protecting this area and working with the Indigenous people who are the traditional owners of this culture. I think the work that we have done collaboratively with the University of Western Australia and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation has actually strengthened the resolve of the Aboriginal Corporation. It gives them comfort that they are the owners and managers of their culture.
This is a site of archaeological and cultural significance as important as Macchu Picchu in Peru or Yosemite National Park in the US. I hope that in a wider public recognition of this place that it will lead to, rightly, World Heritage recognition and protection through the UNESCO convention.”
Recording Rock Art
In Australia, we are working with the University of Western Australia and the Murujuga Aboriginal Corporation to record the world's biggest collection of rock art, known as petroglyphs, which date back up to 40,000 years.
And in the United States, our Resolution Copper project funded a new Tribal Monitor Training programme, hosted by the US Forest Service, to train and employ Native Americans to identify and record traditional cultural sites alongside archaeologists. The programme creates jobs and also ensures that non-archaeological sites sacred to Native American tribes – such as landscapes that may have names, hold stories or house spiritual deities – are recorded as part of Resolution Copper’s environmental analysis process.
Wherever we work, we are committed to operating in a way that is consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We strive to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous communities, as defined in the IFC’s Indigenous Peoples Performance Standard and the ICMM Position Statement on Indigenous peoples and mining.
Respecting Traditions and Cultures
Building and promoting a culturally safe workplace – where different cultures are respected and valued – is part of our commitment to running a safe, responsible business. One way we do this is by providing cultural awareness training for our Communities practitioners, as well as offering learning opportunities across our wider business. In Australia, for example, each of our operational sites has cultural awareness training developed and delivered in partnership with local Indigenous people. At our Pilbara iron ore operations, we also hire specialist trainers to help build leaders’ understanding of local Aboriginal languages and using cross-cultural communication to build strong, respectful relationships.
What if Shakespeare never wrote Romeo and Juliet?
Sharyn’s mother was just four years old when she was taken from her family and sent to Mogumber mission in Western Australia. She shares her story about the profound impact the loss of a language can have on Indigenous cultural identity.
“My mother firstly grew up in the Western Desert near Nullagine speaking the Pitjikarli dialect of Nyangumarta. She apparently had a white father.
When she was four, my grandmother took her to the Port Hedland hospital because she had an eye infection. They told my grandmother they would keep her in overnight and she should come back the next day. But the next day, my mother was on a boat with other Aboriginal children heading for the Mogumber Mission.
At the Mission, she lost her language, her birth name and her family. Years later, when she found her mother again, she didn’t have the language to connect with her and build a relationship. My grandmother had very little English. And after being taken away, English was all my mother had.
Not having an Aboriginal language affected me growing up too. When I first came to Roebourne (in Western Australia) in my teens, I found myself among people who had more than one language. I felt isolated and different because I only had English. I didn’t feel 100% Aboriginal.
I was married to a very traditional Yindjibarndi man and together we raised four boys. When we lived at Ngurrawarna, people spoke Yindjibarndi – so I started to learn. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of ideas and shades of meaning.
Language changes the way you think and feel. I’ll give you an example: The English language makes the country look so plain. When I say ‘goanna’, I feel like I am not doing justice to the animal compared to when I say ‘gurrumandu’, the word in Yindjibarndi. This name ties the gurrumandu to a hundred stories, songs, ideas, images and the country. When you translate ‘gurrumandu’ into ‘goanna’, it excludes the animal’s connection to land, people, songs and its soul. It leaves this whole world behind and it feels dry and empty. Like they say, what would the name ‘Romeo’ mean if Shakespeare never wrote Romeo and Juliet?
When I started learning the Yindjibarndi language and people heard me speaking it, they knew I was starting to be part of their world and its stories. That is when I started to belong and felt 100% Aboriginal.”