BHP has invited traditional owners to “speak freely” and publicly on matters relating to their cultural heritage.

This follows the ongoing controversy surrounding the destruction of the Juukan Gorge Aboriginal heritage site in Western Australia by rival miner Rio Tinto.

After two 46,000-year-old rock shelters at the site were blasted in May, a public backlash ensued over the loss of the important cultural landmark, with Rio later admitting that it missed several opportunities to prevent the incident from happening.

But BHP and its fellow Australian miner have both faced criticism previously for having gag clauses in land agreements that prevents traditional owners from objecting to developments publicly.


BHP will not prevent traditional owners from making public cultural heritage statements

In a statement, BHP said that following the recent events, traditional owners have expressed views that they feel some elements of agreements “impact on their freedom to express opinions about cultural heritage relating to their country” but that this is “not BHP’s intention”.

“All people have the right to speak freely and publicly on matters relating to their culture and their cultural heritage including any concerns they have about impacts to cultural heritage,” the miner added.

“BHP has confirmed to traditional owners that it does not regard any term of its agreements with them as preventing them from making public statements about cultural heritage concerns.

“If any provision in BHP’s agreements can be regarded as having this effect, then BHP will not enforce that clause.

“BHP will not enforce any clause that would require traditional owners to communicate through BHP when providing comments or opinions to government decision-makers in respect of cultural heritage matters.”


BHP will not yet act upon land approvals

BHP said it views its relationship with traditional owners as “partnerships based on mutual respect and trust”.

The world’s biggest miner has received government approval to disturb up to 40 heritage sites as part of a $3.4bn expansion of its South Flank iron ore project in Western Australia.

But, following the destruction of the Aboriginal heritage site, which last week saw Rio’s CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques step down from his position, BHP confirmed it will not act upon the approvals “without further extensive consultation with the traditional owners”.

The miner said it has set up a Heritage Advisory Council to review its development plans.

“We recognise that what was lost at Juukan Gorge is not only the loss of a site of deep and unique living cultural heritage, but also a loss of trust, not just for the company involved, but with impacts for the entire resource industry,” it added.

“We have listened to Indigenous leaders from around our operations, and at a state and national level.

“We have sought to clarify our commitment and approach to cultural heritage management and take on the learnings that can strengthen our approach.”