MAC: Mines and Communities

From Sludge to Fudge

Published by MAC on 2001-05-01

From Sludge to Fudge

by Nick Cohen

July 19 1998

The following article appeared in the Observer, one of Britain's biggest-circulation "quality" newspapers. Written by columnist Nick Cohen, it is among the most strident attacks on Rio Tinto to have appeared in recent years. Appearing (coincidentally?) on the eve of a forum at which Rio Tinto will purportedly discuss its social and environmental principles (a forum Partizans has called on NGO's to boycott), the article also exposes connections between an ex-Rio Tinto lobbyist and the "New Labour" government of Tony Blair.

In 1995, John Stauber and Shelton Rampton, two investigators at the Center for Media & Democracy in America, were preparing an inquiry into the PR industry's manipulation of public life. All they lacked was a snappy title which would lampoon the ability of the press officers of polluters and tyrants to persuade politicans and newspapers to assert, for example, that the Indonesian dictatorship was a force for stability or British Nuclear Fuels produced safe energy. After much thought, they hit on what seemed a satirical winner: "Toxic Sludge Is Good For You".

But satire is a treacherous art. Nine times out of 10, ridicule founders on the rocks of a reality far more ridiculous than you imagined. A furious PR called Stauber and Rampton. She had seen the book and was horrified because, as it happened, she was just about to launch an industrialists' campaign to convince Americans that toxic sludge was very good for them. She did not like the word "Toxic" mind and wanted "sludge" struck from the language. "We prefer to call it 'biosolids'" she explained.

In 1997, Rio Tinto, the British-based mining conglomerate, was wary of the new Labour Government, committed to an ethical foreign policy. The company's record was appalling and it might have faced a troubling downturn in profitability if the moral Roion Cook (British Foreign Secretary) and Clare Short (Development Secretary) warned Third World governments to steer clear. Its profits of US1.2billion were below City expectations. The collapse of the Far East economies threatened its sales. The attitude of the miner's neighbours towards the company was best summed up by Tom Beanal, leader of the Amungme, who have seen their sacred sites in West Papua devastated. "These companies have occupied our land", he said. "Our environment has been ruined and our forests and rivers polluted by waste. We have been arrested, beaten, and put in containers; we have been tortured and even killed". Eleven people were shot dead near the mine and two "disappeared" last year.

Troops burnt 13 churches and scores of homes. One thousand civilians fled to live in caves. Other highlanders, with no natural immunity to malaria, were forced into mosquito-infested lowlands, with predictable consequences.

Rio Tinto points out that there is no evidence that its employees have murdered villagers. The World Development Movement, a majority of delegates to the World Council of Churches conference of indigenous people (and mining, in 1996) and the international mine-workers union ICEM, point out there was no need for Rio Tinto to lift a finger. The Indonesian army's martial law around the mine was so ferocious that West Papua was the most militarised part of the dictatorship.

Namibian miners, meanwhile, have brought an action against Rio Tinto, claiming they contracted cancers in its Rossing opencast uranium mine. The company does trickle down profits into the communities it disrupts - US$22 million in 1997. The figure is put into perspective when you learn that Rio Tinto's 15 senior directors collected US$11.2 million in salaries and benefits in the same year. In Australia, there were strikes in Rio TInto mines after the company took advantage of anti-union laws, which a Rio Tinto manager helped the Australian government to draw up. The association between the company and dictatorship is long- standing. Its chairman in 1937, Sir Auckland Geddes, was proud to tell sharehlders that fascist victories in Spain were good for business. "Since the region was occupied by General Franco's forces, there have been no further labour problems", he said. "Miners found guilty of trouble-making are court-martialled and shot."

Complaints do not merely come from far-away countries. The company shut its Capper Pass smelter in Scotland in 1991, after repeated claims that childhood leukaemia was linked to radioactive discharges. The Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre noted that uranium leaching from waste heaps and radioisotopes in the atmosphere could harm the workforce and surrounding villages. Last year when the Transport and General Workers Union announced that it was suing the company on behalf of the family of a worker who had died of cancer, it received evidence from 200 people, all saying Capper Pass had wrecked their health. And so on.

If I had written a satire last year in which the ethical foreign policy was a cynical spin and the "purer than pure" Tony Blair was shown in Downing Street schmoozing Rio Tinto execs at a business meeting, the editor would have started twitching. If I had thrown in that Blair included Roger Liddle, a member of the Downing Street Policy Unit, who was being allowed to carry on dealing with Rio Tinto, a former client from the days when he was a lobbyist at Derek Draper's Prima Europe, the poor man would have started gibbering uncontrollably, and snatching imaginary flies from air.

But that was precisely what happened. A Downing Street spokesman emxphasised that although Liddle had worked for Rio Tinto and other clients for a week after he joined Downing Street in 1997 - "just tidying up loose ends" - the meeting between the company, Blair and Liddle to talk about the European Union took place in the autumn after Liddle had condesended to drop his private interests and concentrate on public service.

Liddle still had shares in his lobbying firm even then, and the fact that clients could meet Blair would add to the firm's value. But, in theory, such grubby thoughts did not cross Liddle's mind. He knew nothing about the shares. They were under the control of a 'blind trust' run, coincidentally, by his next-door neighbour. New Labour's reputation for honesty balances unsteadily on such pinheads.

It is not only Blair who has been convinced. In June, Clare Short, mistakenly seen as the conscience of the Labour Party, was asked by Michael Clapham, a mining MP, if she had seen the criticism of Rio TInto. "Rio Tinto had a reputation but it seems to be working for change" said the touchy-feely Development Secretary. "All of us including my honourable friends should meet Rio Tinto and get behind these improvements in performance". There is no British equivalent of the Center for Media & Democracy in America, although the gap in the market is wide enough to drive a juggernaut through. If a branch could be established, its first report could have many titles: Cancer Is Good For You, Malaria Is Good For You. Dying is Good For You.

Source: The Observer, London, July 19th 1998

(c) Observer Newspapers 1998

Nick Cohen drew extensively for this article on the report "Rio Tinto: Tainted Titan", published by the ICEM just prior to this year's Rio Tinto AGM, in cooperation with the CFMEU, Partizans, the Mineral Policy Institute and other NGO's. The full report is available: in Australia from the CFMEU (, and in Europe from the ICEM ( In Britain you can obtain it from Partizans, 41a Thornhill Square, London N1 1BE (tel/fax: 0171 700 6189) for 3 pounds sterling, including postage and packing.

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