MAC: Mines and Communities

Former Rio Tinto advisor blasts his former employer

Published by MAC on 2020-06-19
Source: Radio National (Australia)

Rio Tinto's former anthropological advisor, Glyn Cochrane, has joined the growing critical chorus against the company which he predicts  presages even more indigenous heritage sites being targetted for destruction, while governments turn a blind eye.

[For coverage of Mr. Cochrane's dubious role within Rio Tinto, see Rio Tinto in the Philipinnes ].

Former top Rio Tinto advisor says company now focused on 'what it can get away with'

By Gregg Borschmann and Cathy Van Extel

Radio National (Australia)

18 June 2020

Glynn Cochrane said he cares about the company and wants to see it change direction.

Mining giant Rio Tinto has walked away from its long-standing commitments to communities and heritage protection, according to the company's former global advisor on social performance.

Key points:

Former top advisor to Rio Tinto says heritage protection and social performance is an ‘orphan' inside the company

A key sacred site in the Kimberley may have been destroyed by a different company without receiving approval

Archaeologists, traditional owners and heritage experts fear new State and Federal heritage laws may be worse than current protections.

Professor Glynn Cochrane, one of the world's top anthropologists, spent 20 years implementing Rio Tinto's social performance program.

He told RN Breakfast that the communities and social performance function inside Rio is now an "orphan".

Professor Cochrane said he was going public on behalf of many colleagues who felt that they couldn't speak out.

"That is why I am particularly sad because [Rio Tinto] just has not been prepared to listen," he said, before commenting on the destruction of the Juukan Caves.

"[It was] an accident waiting to happen and I think it will happen again unless the fundamental structural and personnel problems are addressed."

Glynn Cochrane said he felt the need to go public with his concerns on behalf of other Rio Tinto insiders.

"I care about the company, I care about the people [still there] and I don't think it's going in the right direction."

He said the Rio Tinto board should be taking a more assertive approach because "they are the custodians, they're the ones who ought to be setting the direction and pace of change, saying what the company stands for, not what it can get away with."

Professor Cochrane said when he joined Rio Tinto, he was told that he would be expected to give independent advice.

"When I talked to one main board member, he said 'I am not sure this company is right for you because if you join it, we don't want you to lose the capacity to say "f*** you". If you lose that, you are no good to us.'"

"I'm sorry to say but that [attitude] is not something that seems to be growing apace in Rio Tinto."

Rio Tinto recently destroyed two ancient rock shelters in the Pilbara where there was evidence of continuous human occupation going back 46,000 years.

Both the West Australian and Federal Governments are currently reviewing heritage protection laws, but WA has refused to place a moratorium on approvals for the destruction of heritage sites in the state.

As reviews of heritage laws continue traditional owners in the Kimberley claim another key heritage site has been destroyed, despite WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt refusing a Section 18 request for exemption from state heritage laws by mining company Kimberley Granite Holdings.

Kimberley Granite Holdings has developed a site in the East Kimberley region.

The destroyed "moon-dreaming" site, called Garnkiny, is located in the East Kimberley, near Halls Creek, and features in revered Indigenous artist Mabel Juli's famous moon dreaming stories.

Paintings from the series hang in the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery of Victoria

Kimberley Granite Holdings intend to mine the area for granite to be exported for use in kitchen benchtops manufactured in Italy and China.
Garnkiny Ngarranggarni Moon Dreaming by Mabel Juli depicts the Garnkiny sacred site.

A spokesperson for Mr Wyatt said his office had received a complaint of unlawful destruction of Aboriginal sites and had referred the matter to the WA Department of Planning, Lands and Heritage.

"We will let the investigation run its course before making further comment."

Kimberley Land Council CEO Nolan Hunter said the organisation had no confidence that the mining company will be held to account.

"The real issue is that the [existing law] is very, very weak and the penalties are very weak.

"There's nothing that compels proponents to have serious regard to adhering to the Heritage Act because the penalties or consequences of not doing so are minimal."

Under the Aboriginal Heritage Act, companies face a fine of $50,000 for a first offence, while individuals can be fined $20,000 and imprisoned for nine months.

In a statement to the ABC, Kimberley Granite Holdings said it had been informed by senior local Aboriginal people that the company's quarry operations would not impact any Aboriginal sites.

"In February 2020, the company received advice from DPLH that a complaint had been made that the company was impacting an Aboriginal site," the statement said.

"Out of caution, the company gave notice under section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA) seeking ministerial consent to ensure that quarry works would not be interrupted."

The company said it later learned that the Minister had declined to give the section 18 consent.

Archaeologists profoundly disappointed

The Society of American Archaeologists has written to Mr Wyatt expressing its ‘profound disappointment' at the destruction of the Juukan caves.

The president of the organisation, Joe E. Watkins, wrote that the antiquity of the sites was rare for anywhere in the world.

"The rock shelters were also of outstanding global archaeological importance," he wrote.

Dr Watkins told RN Breakfast a copper mine proposed by Rio Tinto and BHP also currently threatened burial grounds sacred to American Indians on the traditional lands of the San Carlos Apache American Indian tribe in Arizona.

"The [US] Federal Government has an oversight responsibility and special relationship with First Nations and American Indian tribes and yet it seems whenever it comes down to an economic decision, the Federal Government has a tendency to side on economics rather than ethics or morality."

Australian anthropologist and archaeologist Robin Stevens is concerned heritage laws are not working in Australia.

Evidence of more than 40,000 years of human habitation was discovered during the excavation of one of the Juukan rock cave sites in 2014.

He is the convenor of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act Reform Collective — an informal group of heritage professionals, native title lawyers and traditional owners.

Mr. Stevens said fears that the new heritage law in WA may be worse than what is already in place.

"The only thing we've got from the Department so far is some detail around the approvals systems; the system that caters for development and site destruction," Mr Stevens said.

"[It's] kind of disappointing that of all the things in the new Act, the one thing that they appear to have prioritised is the site destruction process."

He said the new act appears not to be radically different from the existing law, which he said had already proved inadequate.

"It may be slightly worse than what we have now but it is hard to say until we see the actual legislation; it's a draft outline."

Rio Tinto was allowed to blast the Juukan caves under Section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act.

Mr Stevens is also concerned sites of archaeological significance won't be automatically protected under the new act.

"The department won't entertain the idea of 'archaeological assessment.'

"That's what we have now, it's going to be taken out of it unless Aboriginal groups specifically ask for it".

"Now if you can imagine … some remote communities in which many of the elders aren't that good at reading and writing, they're generally groups that are severely under-resourced but the onus will now be on them to write to the Department rather than having what [we've got] at the moment [and] what you have in modern heritage [legislation] all over the world."

The review of WA's Aboriginal Heritage Act began in 2018 — long before the international outcry over Rio Tinto's destruction of the ancient Juukan Caves.

A spokesperson for Mr Wyatt said his office had worked comprehensively to progress the Bill and undertaken extensive consultation with Aboriginal people.

"Under the proposed Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill 2020, Aboriginal people and traditional owners will be responsible for evaluating the importance and significance of identified heritage sites," the spokesperson said.

"The importance will be placed on Aboriginal voices and knowledge holders for determining heritage, however some Aboriginal corporations and organisations may choose to also consider archaeological, or anthropological, advice."


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