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Rio Tinto accused of allowing irreplaceable Indigenous artefacts to be dumped in rubbish tip

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<span>Photograph: Paul Mayall Australia/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Paul Mayall Australia/Alamy

Mining giant Rio Tinto has been accused of allowing hundreds of irreplaceable Indigenous cultural artefacts from the iron ore rich Pilbara region to be thrown away at a rubbish dump in Darwin, and failed to disclose the disposal to Aboriginal traditional owners for decades.

Eastern Guruma traditional owners of Rio Tinto’s multi-billion dollar Marandoo mine, say they are “left with nothing” after finding out the company approved the destruction of artefacts salvaged from their important and sacred sites in the 1990s, and failed to tell them of the decision.

Related: A year on from the Juukan Gorge destruction, Aboriginal sacred sites remain unprotected

The Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal corporation says Easterm Guruma elders discovered their artefacts had “ended up in the bin” after obtaining documents which describe their “accidental, and then deliberate discarding and destruction”, which they say has never been disclosed to them by Rio Tinto.

Based on their discovery, the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal corporation – representing the Eastern Guruma traditional owners – has made a powerful new submission to the federal parliamentary inquiry into Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge, accusing Rio Tinto and the Western Australia government of keeping the matter “a secret” ever since.

In the documents, seen by Guardian Australia, materials salvaged from an 18,000-year-old rock shelter used by the Eastern Guruma were accidentally taken to the tip in Darwin in 1995.

A large number of materials were disposed of, with Rio’s approval, two years later.

A report to Rio Tinto in 1997 said the materials were stored in 66 large bags, most of which were “open”, in a shipping container that had “rusted out, and holes in the roof had let water onto and into some of the bags. Bags were labelled, however this did not always correspond with their contents.”

The WGAC submission says: “So little was the respect for either the state’s conditions, or for the cultural heritage that was destroyed on a massive scale, hundreds of Eastern Guruma cultural artefacts ended up in the bin. It is WGAC’s view that the accidental, and then deliberate, discarding and destruction of Eastern Guruma cultural material was never disclosed to the Eastern Guruma people.

“It is a secret that has been kept by Hammersley Iron [Rio Tinto’s wholly owned subsidiary] and the government for some 25 years.”

Rio Tinto’s CEO, Simon Trott said the company is “not proud of its history” at Marandoo and is engaging with traditional owners to right “historical wrongs”.

“We’re not proud of many parts of our history at Marandoo and we reiterate our apology to the Traditional Owners of the land, the Eastern Guruma People, for our past actions,” Trott said.

“We know we have a lot of work ahead to right some of these historical wrongs which fell well short of the standards we expect today. This will take time, consistent effort and open dialogue with the WGAC to rebuild trust and reset our relationship for the future.

“Our leadership team are engaging regularly on this important work and are committed to meeting with the WGAC again when they are ready.”

In 1992 Rio Tinto sought approval for a large scale iron ore mine at Marandoo, in the eastern part of traditional Eastern Guruma country within Karijini national park.

The Eastern Guruma were concerned that a large number of heritage sites identified in a 1975 survey of the region, including ancestral burial sites, would be destroyed.

They organised another survey, in which bones, rock art, scarred trees, stone quarries and places of “outstanding cultural significance” were identified over a six day visit in January 1992. Their report identified a further 105 heritage sites, and estimated another 300 sites of significance were in the path of the proposed mine, none of which had been adequately surveyed.

The WA government approved Rio Tinto’s application in February 1992, on condition that it would avoid a significant rock art complex 30km to the west, protect the Thoongari burial sites, and salvage important materials, which would be sent interstate for collection and “safekeeping”.

Related: Juukan Gorge traditional owners demand a say on Rio Tinto iron ore mine

Rio Tinto outsourced the 1992 salvage work to a private engineering company, which sent material from a small number of rock shelters to the University of Western Australia, while the bulk of it was shipped to the Northern Territory University, or NTU (now Charles Darwin University).

But in a 1995 letter, seen by Guardian Australia, the NTU told the engineering company that cultural material excavated from one site, an 18,000-year-old rock shelter that at the time was among the first evidence that Aboriginal people had lived in the Hamersley Ranges through the last ice age, “had accidentally been taken to the Darwin tip and discarded”.

In March 1996 the engineering company told the WA government the cultural materials had been accidentally destroyed in a “devastating accident”.

In 1997, it wrote to Hamersley Iron, Rio Tinto’s subsidiary operating the Marandoo mine, to propose an end to the project, which would involve the disposal of a large number of the items left at the university. The rest would be returned to Hamersley’s headquarters in Western Australia.

Hamersley approved this proposal in January 1997. Remaining material was taken to the tip in Darwin and thrown away, along with notes, papers and records relating to all that had been salvaged.

“The dumping of cultural material at the Darwin tip appears to have affected at least 20 of the 28 sites that were salvaged,” the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal corporation said.

“For some of the sites, what was taken to the tip was the only remaining material left after the site’s destruction. There are no reports, data, photographs or documents of any kind that relate to this part of the salvage programme,” it said.

WGAC also holds concerns for ancestral burial sites in a place called Manganese Gorge, which were supposed to be protected from the mine operations.

“Elders today are deeply concerned that ancestral remains were within some of the dozens, if not hundreds, of unrecorded and poorly recorded rock shelters that were destroyed by the mining at Marandoo,” it said.

“Again, WGAC has been unable to find any reports that can clarify which sites contained ancestral remains, and which sites currently contain ancestral remains.”

Related: Explosives company will let workers refuse to blast if they fear damaging Indigenous heritage

Traditional owners who are members of WGAC board have expressed their hurt and disbelief in the new parliamentary submission.

“Only now we find out what really happened, that no one cared for our artefacts, our Old People’s things. It hurts us that our heritage was thrown in the bin,” the WGAC submission quotes one board member as saying.

The WA government granted consent for the mine on 2 February 1992 under the Aboriginal Heritage Act – the same legislation which allowed Rio to blow up Juukan Gorge in May last year.

But on 5 February 1992, the WA Labor government under Carmen Lawrence passed a separate law, the Marandoo Act, which gave Rio additional security for the mine and effectively prevented any legal challenges from Aboriginal people.

WGAC say it is the only time that all protections for Aboriginal heritage have been removed within an area of land in Western Australia.

Rio continues to operate under the Marandoo Act 1992, which is still in place nearly 30 years later. But now, in light of revelations about the disposal of their artefacts, the traditional owners say they want that legislation re-examined.

“We felt it was a kick in the guts, that Rio took an approach that was so heavy handed, and so controlling. It is unbelievable that this act is still place today. Why? Why does Rio still have to hide behind the Marandoo Act?

“We are releasing this story because we never want to see this happen again.”

Rio Tinto’s CEO Simon Trott said Rio supports repealing the Marandoo Act 1992 and has been engaging with traditional owners and the WA government on this “important issue”.

“We have committed to all Traditional Owners on whose land we operate in the Pilbara that we will modernise our agreements with them. This includes changing the way we work together, putting in place measures to ensure greater awareness, respect and preservation of cultural heritage and improving the economic and social outcomes that come from mining,” he said.

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