Rio Tinto loses Australian indigenous backing after blasting sacred caves

FILE PHOTO: The Rio Tinto mining company's logo is photographed at their annual general meeting in Sydney, Australia, May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Reed

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - An Australian indigenous group has suspended Rio Tinto from its reconciliation plan after world’s biggest iron ore miner blasted two ancient sacred caves as part of a mine expansion.

Reconciliation Australia, the lead body for promoting better ties between the wider Australian community and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, announced the move after Rio Tinto destroyed the two Aboriginal caves in late May.

“The blasting activity in Juukan Gorge by Rio Tinto exposes a broken relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurama and Pinikura (PKKP) Peoples and a breathtaking breach of a respectful relationship,” Reconciliation Australia said on Tuesday.

Rio Tinto was expanding its Brockman mine in the Pilbara region, where one of the caves showed evidence of continual habitation dating back 46,000 years.

The mining company, which is a major employer of indigenous Australians and prides itself as being a top supporter of them, said in a statement that it would continue dialogue with the NGO as it focused on rebuilding trust with the PKKP people.

Rio won state government approval to disturb the sites in 2013 under laws that cannot be appealed by traditional owners. The PKKP say Rio, whose head of iron ore Chris Salisbury later offered his apologies, knew the cultural and historic significance of the site before it was blasted.

The NGO said that it had met with Rio Tinto executives to convey its “extreme concern” and that a review of the suspension will depend on how it engages with the Traditional Owner groups.

It is also dependent on Rio Tinto releasing a full and public review into the matter, sustained action in light of the review, and “meaningful accountability.”

“Our heritage processes will be comprehensively reviewed, with board and indigenous leader oversight, to help identify, understand and recommend ways to improve,” Rio Tinto said.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Alexander Smith