Traditional owners of the ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters destroyed by Rio Tinto have given emotional evidence to a parliamentary inquiry, saying the mining giant "didn't want to know" about the importance of the sites.
The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation on Monday addressed the Northern Australia Committee via teleconference.
Rio blew up the 46,000-year-old West Australian site in May so it could extract an additional $188 million worth of high-grade iron ore.
PKKP representatives spoke of their devastation at losing the site, which director Burchell Hayes described as "an anchor of our culture".
"It felt really terrible as a grandfather to know that I was not able to preserve the heritage that was on loan to me," he told the hearing.
Rio had approval under WA's outdated Aboriginal Heritage Act to destroy the site but failed to act upon expert reports noting it was among the most significant in Australia.
PKKP only learned that the rock shelters would be destroyed nine days prior to the blast.
In a scathing submission to the inquiry, PKKP said Rio then continued to load explosives into blast holes despite having promised to delay the blast.
PKKP culture and heritage manager Heather Builth said she had been told last year by a Rio mine operations manager that the caves would be protected.
But the ethnographic significance of the Juukan 2 shelter had not been declared in Rio's section 18 application to destroy the sites, she said.
The inquiry heard the Juukan area was highly significant for men's business but Rio had not engaged with male traditional owners who were permitted to speak about it.
"It seems that the extraordinary record of human history that was being revealed by all the studies was literally ignored," Dr Builth said.
"There was just a silence."
PKKP had wanted to hold hearings on country but WA's COVID-19 travel restrictions forced the committee to hear the evidence remotely.
Committee chair Warren Entsch said MPs hoped to visit in early-November and had "pleaded" to WA Premier Mark McGowan for exemptions.
Rio's chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other executives resigned last month following intense investor backlash, which included concerns about the inequitable negotiating position between the company and PKKP.
Rio has pledged not to enforce any potential "gag orders" against the PKKP but traditional owners remain wary of publicly voicing their concerns.
"This is a David and Goliath situation," PKKP chief executive Carol Meredith said.
Rio has promised to review all participation agreements struck with Pilbara traditional owner groups.
"We reiterate that what happened at Juukan Gorge was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation," a spokesman said.
The two parties have agreed to a moratorium on mining in the Juukan Gorge area until at least January 2021.
But Dr Builth told the hearing that rival mining giant Fortescue Metals Group had last month applied for mining licences in the moratorium area, describing it as "insensitive".
FMG said "there are no current plans to mine the area" under which it has prospecting licences dating back to 2012.
""As the prospecting licenses are reaching the end of their term, Fortescue submitted a mining lease application over this area which is consistent with normal practice," chief executive Elizabeth Gaines said.
"We take our relationship with traditional custodians very seriously and we will continue to work with the PKKP to survey the area and understand areas of cultural significance."
Australian Associated Press