Photos from Yinjaa-Barni Art, Roebourne

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.

We remain committed to achieving best practice cultural heritage management. We will continue to work with Indigenous peoples and communities to ensure we better understand their priorities and concerns, minimise our impacts, and responsibly manage Indigenous cultural heritage within our operations.

We support the strengthening of cultural heritage legislation and advocate for more meaningful engagement, the protection of heritage values, strengthened agreement making, and certainty for all stakeholders.

We consider both tangible and intangible cultural values as part of cultural heritage. Wherever we can, we design our activities to avoid damage to non-replicable cultural heritage. If it is not possible to avoid an area, we work together on the approach to it, which may include salvage and reclamation, or agreeing a non-disturbance area. In many cases, Indigenous peoples, on whose land we operate, based on their unique cultural insight, supported by experts, designate which areas can and cannot be accessed.

We also invest in activities that help preserve intangible cultural values that may be affected by our operations. Prior to starting work, all employees and contractors interacting with communities, and in particular, Indigenous peoples, are informed about our communities and social performance policies and programs, as well as the local community context. This includes cultural awareness training for our community practitioners which, at our operational sites in Australia, is developed and delivered in partnership with local Indigenous groups.

What is cultural heritage?

Cultural heritage is dynamic and can also include music, food, belief systems, buildings, kinship systems and connection to landscape. At its heart are the people for whom stories, knowledge, practices and art, are key parts of their identity.

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. We constantly work to avoid impacts to cultural heritage. 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 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.

Cultural heritage legislation in Australia 

We support the strengthening of cultural heritage legislation in Australia, and advocate for more meaningful engagement, the protection of heritage values, strengthened agreement-making, and certainty for all stakeholders. We continue to work with Indigenous peoples and communities to ensure we better understand their priorities and concerns, minimise our impacts, and responsibly manage Indigenous cultural heritage within our operations.

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.

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Juukan Gorge

We are committed to learning the lessons and have taken decisive action.

Ways we manage and protect cultural heritage 

Avoiding disturbance 

Where cultural heritage is identified, we look for ways of preserving 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.

Third party auditing of our performance

We’re finding better ways to partner with communities, and we are moving to a model of co-management to ensure heritage is always managed and protected to the highest standard. Through 2021 and 2022, ERM completed an independent audit of our cultural heritage management compliance and performance. This was a commitment we made after the Rio Tinto Board Review of Cultural Heritage Management identified priorities for change following the destruction of the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge.  The audit identified areas where we are achieving leading cultural heritage practices but also identified other practices where we need to improve our performance to ensure continuous improvement.

Read the report

Independent Cultural Heritage Management Audit
Independent Cultural Heritage Management Audit
12.3 MB
Independent Cultural Heritage Management Audit [ES]
9.92 MB
Independent Cultural Heritage Management Audit [FR]
10.08 MB
Sustainability through partnership: working with Traditional Owners in Far North Queensland, Australia
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What are community agreements?

Our community agreements include commitments on a range of matters, including cultural heritage.

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.

Kimberley landscape, Western Australia

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.


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.”

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


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."

Better together: combining scientific and traditional knowledge to help protect our environment

Diavik diamond mine, Northwest Territories, Canada

In the Northwest Territories, in Canada, our Diavik diamond operations take place near some of the world’s purest water. Lac de Gras, and the fish that live in it, have sustained many generations of Indigenous people and are critical to their lifestyle. For more than 17 years, since our mine began production, we have brought together scientific and traditional knowledge to review the quality of the water and the health of the fish. Every year, biologists and members from the local Indigenous communities come together at a small camp on this remote location – about 200 kilometres from the Arctic Circle – to sample the water and assess the fish. This is one of the ways we help protect this sensitive environment, while also making sure our operations benefit the communities who call it home.

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Sustainability Reporting

We have a responsibility to extract the full value from the minerals and materials we produce in the safest and most sustainable way possible.