Aboriginal group says miners' use of gag clauses needs review

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - An Australian Aboriginal group on whose land BHP and Rio Tinto mine iron ore said on Tuesday that gag clauses in land agreements have stopped traditional owners from publicly objecting to developments.

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Some of the miners’ biggest projects, numerous smaller mines and hundreds of kilometres of rail lines are sited on the traditional land of the Banjima people in the iron-ore rich Pilbara region of Western Australia state.

But contracts that limit protests of specific mining activities hinder traditional owners’ right of self-determination and from fulfilling their cultural duties, the Banjima Native Title Aboriginal Corporation said in a submission to an Australian government enquiry.

Agreements that were struck in the past had a major power imbalance that ought to be considered as part of state law reform now underway, it said.

“Traditional owners negotiating these contracts had no real choice but to take the deals that were offered or take nothing,” Maitland Parker, corporation chairman, said in the submission. The earliest contracts were signed more than a decade ago.

Western Australia’s heritage laws, which were already being reviewed, faced renewed criticism that they do not protect indigenous sites after Rio Tinto legally blew up a sacred 46,000-year-old rockshelter.

Under agreements shrouded by confidentiality, traditional owners are controlled by laws that minimise their views on culture, heritage and land management, Parker said.

The confidentiality of the agreements also means that contributions Aboriginal people make to Australia’s prosperity have not been properly recognised, he said.

Iron ore was Australia’s most lucrative export last year, at A$100 billion ($72 billion).

BHP chief executive Mike Henry said on Tuesday the miner operates to a higher standard than required by law and has a long record of respectful engagement with traditional owners.

BHP has government approval to disturb 40 heritage sites as part of a mine expansion, but it has pledged not to proceed while discussions with the Banjima continue.

Rio Tinto declined to comment.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; Additional reporting by Zandi Shabalala in London; Editing by Tom Hogue