Ancient petroglyphs from Javkhlant rock

Cultural Heritage

Protecting Cultural Heritage

Many of our operations are on or near land that is significant to many, including Indigenous communities. We recognise the cultural, spiritual and physical connections that Indigenous people often have with land, water, plants and animals. 

What is Cultural Heritage?

Cultural heritage is the aspects of a community’s past and present that its people consider valuable and wants to pass on to future generations. It can include everything from landscapes, artefacts and archaeological sites to language, art, stories and music, and customary practices like hunting and gathering. 

How Do We Work to Protect it?

Long before we start to mine, we do cultural and environmental studies to understand the area. We work with local people who live there, work there and know the land. Wherever we can, we avoid disturbing cultural heritage sites. We 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.

Where we have to disturb land, we consult with those for whom the cultural heritage site has significance. We work with them to preserve its value – for example by relocating artefacts – and we make sure we rehabilitate the land the right way afterwards. Where possible, we also enable Indigenous peoples to maintain access to sites of cultural significance to maintain their connection and customary practices.

Alongside the local communities, we consult with government agencies, religious institutions, national and local museums and cultural institutes, scientists and NGOs. Often, each group has a different relationship with local cultural heritage, and values it differently – which is why we believe it is important to consult with them all, and build relationships based on mutual respect and trust.

We continue this engagement throughout the life of a project or operation, as communities’ cultural heritage concerns can change over time, and new ones can appear in relation to new developments or processes. At Oyu Tolgoi, in Mongolia, we have established a cultural heritage management system (CHMS) to meet our cultural heritage management commitments. CHMS outlines various processes to ensure the management and protection of tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

Working with Governments in Australia

In Australia, the Federal Parliament has announced an inquiry into the state and federal laws relating to Aboriginal Heritage. We will fully cooperate with the Inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Northern Australia. We are also continuing to support the government of Western Australia in the review of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA). We are committed to engaging with the rest of the industry, Traditional Owners, and federal and state governments across a number of areas relating to cultural heritage approvals and processes, and the broad contribution of the resources sector to Australia.

We Can Do Better

We know that we do not always get it right. There have been defining moments that have compelled us to evolve our approach. We remain committed to learning from such times, incorporating the lessons into our approach, and moving forward in new ways – always side by side – with the communities that host us, in the places that so many of us also call home.

Ways We Manage and Protect Cultural Heritage 

Avoiding Disturbance 

Where an area is identified as being of high cultural significance, we look for ways to avoid disturbing it. This could be by adapting the design of a mining project to exclude significant sites from the mining lease, or mining around areas. Where we cannot avoid a site completely, we work with Traditional Owners to find ways we can preserve its cultural value. This can include carefully securing and managing heritage sites so they can coexist with our activities, working with archaeologists to excavate and conserve artefacts, or recording oral history and other information for future generations.

Preventing Inadvertent Damage to Cultural Heritage

We have stringent processes in place for protecting cultural heritage sites at our operations. These are designed in consultation with Indigenous Peoples and include a range of controls – from management plans to procedures on the ground – to help prevent inadvertently damaging cultural heritage:

  1. We work with Indigenous Peoples to develop a cultural heritage management plan, as well as specific plans for each known site of cultural significance. These plans detail what we will do to protect these sites, as well as the steps we will take to prevent inadvertent damage to cultural heritage through our activities. 
  2. Before we undertake any ground disturbance work – such as clearing vegetation – we conduct surveys with Traditional Owners to check for cultural heritage sites. 
  3. We create buffers around any identified sites, and we mark them clearly with signs. These signs include information about cultural protocols that must be followed at these sites.
  4. Traditional Owners monitor clearing work, and provide advice on the appropriate way to manage any culturally significant sites that may not have been identified during cultural heritage surveys.
  5. We provide cultural awareness training and cultural heritage inductions for employees who are doing the work, such as drill crews or bulldozer operators, so they know what to look for and can report possible cultural heritage sites to the Traditional Owners.

Site Conservation

We work with Indigenous peoples to look after cultural places or objects. This can include fire management, feral animal management, erosion control, installation of protective and interpretative signage, auditing, monitoring and measuring the condition of sites, and managing public access.

Archaeological Surveys

We work with qualified archaeologists and land-connected peoples to find and record archaeological sites and objects.

Ethnographic Recording

The recording of oral history and cultural information, which is stored for future generations. This can include things like knowledge of sacred sites.

Cultural Mapping

Cultural mapping is closely linked to ethnographic recording. Cultural mapping may be used to further investigate the tangible and intangible cultural values. The focus of cultural mapping may be on those values directly relevant to future use of land, and aspirations for future generations. This may also include ethno-botanical studies to capture knowledge on the use of culturally important plants across the area.

Cultural Heritage Research Partnerships

We form research partnerships with universities and other experts to address specific areas of interest to Indigenous Peoples as well as the broader community.

Sustainability Through Partnership: Working with Traditional Owners in Far North Queensland, Australia

What are Cultural Heritage Management Plans?

Our operations have processes in place to identify and understand cultural heritage and options for managing any issues that arise.

For example, at our Weipa operations, in far north Queensland, Australia, the landscape and, in particular, the environmental features within it, are culturally important to the 12 local Traditional Owner groups connected to our operations, as are the archaeological remains of the Old People’s (Indigenous ancestors’) interactions with the land. All are deemed of heritage value.

Our agreements with the Traditional Owners of the Western Cape – Indigenous Australians who can trace their history in this part of the world back over 60,000 years – ensure that our operations are run with respect for their Connection to Country – a physical, spiritual and emotional relationship with land, involving responsibility, custodianship and overall care. Recognising these story places and working to protect them right through the life cycle of our operations and into rehabilitation is critical to the way we work at Weipa.

What if Shakespeare Never Wrote Romeo and Juliet?

Sharyn Dershow is a Traditional Owner in Australia's Pilbara region, and works with leaders across our iron ore operations to help improve communication with our Indigenous workforce and Traditional Owner groups.
Kimberley landscape, Western Australia

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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.”

Local cultural heritage, QMM

Stories from Stones

Dr Ken Mulvaney, archeologist
Dr Ken Mulvaney is an archaeologist and all round rock art expert, and he manages our Burrup Conservation Agreement obligations and responsibilities in Dampier, Western Australia.
Dr Ken Mulvaney

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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."

"We know from the rock art that people were in the Pilbara region from at least 42,000 years ago."

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.”