By Rhiannon Hoyle

 

An independent report commissioned by Rio Tinto PLC found the world's second-largest miner by market value was missing the foundations for good cultural-heritage management practices at all of its operations to some extent.

The report, published Monday, was commissioned in the aftermath of Rio Tinto's destruction of two ancient rock shelters in 2020 that cost the miner's previous chief executive his job and damaged the mining industry's reputation more broadly. Rio Tinto ordered the audit in response to a board review of cultural-heritage management that identified a need for change to processes and practices.

The report by consultant Environmental Resources Management Australia, or ERM, found 81 areas of non-conformance and 60 areas of improvement. There were similar findings across the 37 assets audited, ERM said. Overall, every asset was missing at least one component of a cultural-heritage management system key to guiding on-the-ground decisionmaking, it said.

The report said roughly one-fifth of assets had an "out-of-date knowledge base," while a similar proportion had "key or critical gaps in their knowledge base."

"The knowledge base at some assets was more than 20 years old," said the report, which was compiled from input by 17 auditors with experience in cultural-heritage management, including anthropologists and archaeologists.

The absence of a cultural-heritage management plan was noted at nearly a quarter of the assets during the audit, while others had plans that were outdated or had critical gaps, said the report. Many operations lacked cultural-heritage experts.

"In some cases, there was a reliance on contractors or consultants, which means that external parties are overseeing the approvals process and making decisions that potentially affect cultural heritage," the report said. "The ownership of such decisions should reside within the business."

At a number of assets, grievances were not being systematically managed, recorded or tracked. In planning for closure, more than a quarter of operations were not consistently including cultural heritage requirements, according to the report.

The Juukan Gorge rock shelters destroyed by Rio Tinto in Australia's minerals-rich Pilbara region in 2020 contained a trove of artifacts that indicated they had been occupied by humans more than 46,000 years ago. Rio Tinto, which didn't break any laws when destroying the site, apologized and acknowledged that its actions damaged trust between the company and the indigenous landowners.

The ERM audit was conducted during 2021 and 2022, involving 20 sites in Australia and 17 in other countries including the U.S. and Mongolia.

Rio Tinto will adopt all of the report's recommendations, said the head of its Australia business, Kellie Parker. Recommendations include Rio Tinto having appropriately qualified and experienced in-house cultural-heritage staff accessible for each operation. Each site should also use a co-design approach for cultural-heritage management by collaborating with communities.

"We know we have more work to do and the report gives us areas for further improvement across our global operations," Ms. Parker said.

 

Write to Rhiannon Hoyle at rhiannon.hoyle@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 19, 2023 19:31 ET (23:31 GMT)

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