Rio Tinto ordered to rebuild ancient Aboriginal caves

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Juukan Gorge cave site before and after mining worksImage source, AFP
Image caption,
The Juukan Gorge cave site before and after the mining works

Mining giant Rio Tinto must rebuild a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cave system it blew up in May, an Australian parliamentary inquiry has said.

The Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia were destroyed as part of an iron ore exploration project.

In a report released on Wednesday, the inquiry blasted Rio Tinto's "inexcusable" act, and said they should compensate the traditional owners.

Rio Tinto repeated its apology and pledged to change its practices.

Earlier this year several senior figures at the company, including Chief Executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques, resigned over the incident, following a backlash from shareholders and the public.

Before their destruction, the Juukan Gorge caves in Pilbara had shown evidence of continuous human habitation since the last Ice Age.

They were seen as one of Australia's most significant archaeological research sites, but they also had more than eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore, with an estimated value of £75m (A$132m; $96m).

Following an outcry over their destruction Rio Tinto held an inquiry, after which it cut bonuses for directors and began attempts at repairing relations with Aboriginal communities.

A parliamentary inquiry was also established to investigate Rio Tinto's behaviour and assess the damage caused to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people - the traditional owners of the land where the caves were based.

In its report - titled Never Again - the inquiry concluded Rio Tinto "knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway".

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Jean-Sébastien Jacques resigned as Rio Tinto's chief executive in September, following outcry over the caves' destruction

It made seven recommendations, including a moratorium on all mining in the local area, and changes to heritage protection laws.

The PKKP Aboriginal Corporation has welcomed the verdict and said it hopes it will "prompt a fundamental reset of the [mining] sector".

In a statement, Rio Tinto said it was "working very hard to progress a remedy" with the PKKP, and the caves' destruction "does not reflect the values that [we] aspire to".