MAC: Mines and Communities

Australia: Rio Tinto's moral incompetence under denunciation

Published by MAC on 2020-06-01
Source: Sydney Morning Herald; AP

Investors 'shocked'

Rio Tinto's wholesale destruction of an ancient Aboriginal heritage site, just over a week ago in Western Australia, has mobilised a raft of environmentalists and investors into calling for fundamental changes in the manner in which it deals with Indigenous communities [see: 26,000 years heritage bulldozered].

Now the company has sought to apologise to the local communities suffering a deeply-felt historic loss. But one national organisation says Rio Tinto is "squandering" its longterm work to "enhance its social licence and long-term value". 

Rio Tinto investors 'shocked', want answers on rock shelter blast

By Nick Toscano

Sydney Morning Herald

1 June 2020

Rio Tinto is under pressure to explain the destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelter site in Western Australia with a
leading investor group saying its members were shocked and wanted answers.

The nation's top iron ore miner has apologised to traditional owners after detonating explosives at a culturally significant site in Juukan Gorge, the only inland site in Australia to show evidence of continual human occupation through the last Ice Age. Rio, which had all the necessary legal approvals for the blasting, said it believed it had the consent of the traditional owners of the land near its Brockman mines in
the Pilbara until it was too late.

"Everyone is shocked to see what has occurred at the Juukan Gorge rock shelter sites and the loss of these significant cultural sites," Australian Council of Superannuation Investors chief executive Louise Davidson told The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

"The first questions investors are asking Rio is, 'How did this happen?' The second is, 'What are they doing to ensure something similar never
happens again?'"

The destruction of the rock shelters sparked international outcry and federal government promises to examine the adequacy of heritage-protection laws. Rio has issued an apology to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP) and on Sunday pledged to immediately review its approach to dealing with heritage matters. But the PKKP has rejected Rio's insistence the group had not previously relayed its preference that the rock shelters be preserved. "For Rio Tinto to suggest otherwise is incorrect," a statement said.

Ms Davidson said it was disappointing that communications appeared to have broken down between Rio Tinto and the traditional owners. "We want
to understand how the company will engage with local communities on future issues," she said.

Susheela Peres da Costa, head of advisory at governance firm Regnan, which advises institutional investors, said clients had begun asking
about the ethical and sustainability implications of Rio's actions.

"Rio Tinto is generally one of the better performers on cultural heritage and indigenous issues, and something has clearly gone wrong
here," she said. "Because of this, we will be very attentive to why."

Ms Peres da Costa said the situation raised serious questions about Rio's engagement processes and governance controls. "From the statements
made by Rio and PKKP, a failure of communication seems possible – either between Rio and the traditional owner groups or internally at Rio,
between those in contact with PKKP and those making the decision to go ahead with the detonations," she said.

"If it was the former, we’d have to ask about the effectiveness of the stakeholder relations processes. If the latter, our questions are more
likely about the effectiveness of Rio’s internal controls – a governance question."

Shareholder activists have written to Rio chairman Simon Thompson to convey "sadness and, to be frank, anger" about the destruction of the
priceless and irreplaceable site. In a letter, the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), a Rio shareholder, said the miner's
commitments to United Nations guidelines on human rights and the rights of indigenous people required it to go beyond the legal minimum
standards in each jurisdiction.

The group's director, Brynn O'Brien, said the disaster "squanders" Rio's work to enhance its social licence and long-term value. She had spoken
with large investors, fund managers and industry bodies in recent days, signalling there was a "high level of concern" about the company's
actions and discussions about whether investors will push for certain consequences.

"We call on you to provide a transparent explanation of how this occurred, despite clear policy commitments that should have prevented
it, as well as an outline of Rio Tinto's plans to provide a remedy to those whose rights have been violated," the letter said.

Rio Tinto iron ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said the miner, in partnership with the PKKP, had followed a heritage approval process for
more than 10 years and, in 2014, undertook a large-scale exercise to retrieve and preserve significant cultural artefacts from the area,
recovering about 7000 objects.

"We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership," he said.

On Monday, WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt told ABC Radio he was not aware of the blast or of traditional owners' concerns beforehand.

Rio Tinto apologises to traditional owners after blasting 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site

Mining giant detonated explosives at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, destroying two ancient rock shelters

Australian Associated Press

31 May 2020

Mining giant Rio Tinto has apologised to traditional owners in Western Australia’s north after destroying a significant Indigenous site dating back 46,000 years, saying it is urgently reviewing plans for other sites in the area.

Rio detonated explosives in a part of the Juukan Gorge last Sunday, destroying two ancient rock shelters, which has devastated the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.

The mining giant was granted approval for work at the Brockman 4 iron ore project in 2013, but subsequent archaeological excavation revealed ancient artefacts including grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and 4000-year-old braided hair.

“We are sorry for the distress we have caused,” Rio Tinto Iron Ore chief executive Chris Salisbury said in a statement on Sunday.
Juukan Gorge: Rio Tinto blasting of Aboriginal site prompts calls to change antiquated laws

“Our relationship with the PKKP matters a lot to Rio Tinto, having worked together for many years.

“We will continue to work with the PKKP to learn from what has taken place and strengthen our partnership.

“As a matter of urgency, we are reviewing the plans of all other sites in the Juukan Gorge area.”

On Saturday, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation rejected Rio’s suggestion its representatives had failed to make clear concerns about preserving the site during years of consultation between the two parties.

Spokesman Burchell Hayes labelled the claim outrageous, saying Rio was told in October about the significance of the rock shelters and the company replied it had no plans to extend the Brockman 4 mine.

“The high significance of the site was further relayed to Rio Tinto by PKKPAC as recently as March,” Hayes said.

He said Rio did not advise of its intention to blast the area and the corporation “only found out by default on 15 May when we sought access to the area for NAIDOC Week in July”.

WA Aboriginal affairs minister Ben Wyatt has said he was unaware of the blast or concerns beforehand.

The state government hopes to pass its new Aboriginal cultural heritage bill this year, although Covid-19 has delayed the consultation process.

“It will provide for agreements between traditional owners and proponents to include a process to consider new information that may come to light, and allow the parties to be able to amend the agreements by mutual consent,” Wyatt said.

“The legislation will also provide options for appeal.”

Peter Stone, Unesco’s chair in cultural property protection and peace, said the archaeological destruction at Juukan Gorge was among the worst seen in recent history, likening it to the Taliban blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas statues in Afghanistan and Isis annihilating sites in the Syrian city of Palmyra.

Rio said it was committed to updating its practices.


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