MAC: Mines and Communities

Rio Tinto's Poor Public Perception

Published by MAC on 2001-04-23

Corporate Scumbag: RIO TINTO - Rio's Poor Public Perception

[A slightly edited version of this article by Nina Lansbury of the Mineral Policy Institute can also be found online at:]

The Chairman of Rio Tinto, Sir Robert Wilson, told an mining industry conference in 1999 that a "pressing concern for the mining and metals industry is the need to overcome its poor public perceptions of our industry's performance in relation to the environment". This "poor public perception" of Rio Tinto has perhaps been hard-earned by company's activities at a number of its notorious mines around the world, including Freeport, the Bougainville Copper mine (forcibly closed by local guerrilla), Lihir Gold mine, and the Jabiluka Mineral Lease (closed under a 10-year moratorium).

Freeport's gold and copper mine in West Papua is 12.5% owned by Rio Tinto, and is one of the 'best' documented environmental and human rights disasters that corporate culture has created. The mine drops about 200,000 tonnes of contaminated tailings in the Ajkwa River every day. The sediment levels in the river have killed much of the river's fish and plant life is dead. In 1992, the people living downstream of the mine were directed by the mine staff to stop eating sago palm, the staple of their diet, because it was contaminated.

The mine sits on the traditional lands of the Amungme people and has forced massive relocations. These relocations have caused hundreds to die of malaria as they resettled on the boggy lowlands away from the mountainous region they are used to. Those who have stayed on their land have suffered under the mine's appalling human rights record. In 1995, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid released a report detailing the dozens of local people killed and tortured by the Indonesian military because they were suspected of protesting against the mine. In 2000, four mineworkers died when a mine waste-filled lake overflowed while they were working below.

Rio Tinto's record does not end in Indonesia. Its majority holding in Lihir Gold Mine, PNG, is calculated to dump 89 million tonnes of cyanide contaminated tailings and 330 million tonnes of waste rock directly into the ocean over the next 36 years, in an area described by ecological studies as one of the richest areas of marine biodiversity on earth.

In Bougainville, Rio Tinto still owns the once world's 2nd largest copper mine. In the late 80s the mine had devastated the local environment and culture so severely that the local people responded with a liberation movement. The Bougainville Revolutionary Army forced the mine to close, and, to prevent such dominance by corporate interest occurring again, formed political bodies that engaged in a struggle for self-government ever since.

Rio Tinto, like many of its fellow transnational mining giants including BHP Billiton and AngloAmerican, plays a highly influential role in setting the standard for corporate behaviour. Regrettably, this standard is unacceptably low. These companies have massive financial, political, and even military power to continue their exploitation. Yet, despite the David and Goliath battle facing them, local indigenous people, NGOs, unions and progressive political leaders refuse to be quiet, and have formed dynamic, cross-sectoral alliances to identify and exploit the vulnerabilities of the corporation. For Rio Tinto, these vulnerabilities have been in local confrontation in Bougainville, in investor, financier and consumer-focused opposition in their 'home' territory of Australia and the UK, through a long-term, multi-pronged union campaign on their mine sites and in their annual general meetings, and now through a multi-billion dollar legal challenge by Bougainvillean landowners.

In a positive spin of globalisation, struggles against exploitation by Rio Tinto across the world are intertwining labour struggles with environmental campaigns against resource exhaustion and indigenous people's struggle for survival. These alliances match the mobility and reach of the agents of corporate globalisation, and start to corrode away at its corporate armour.

Nina Lansbury, Mineral Policy Institute

This article is based on 'Moving Mountains: Communities Confront Mining and Globalisation', the latest book from the Mineral Policy Institute (see This book details the impacts of the corporate mining industry from the perspective of indigenous people, labour rights activists, NGOs and academics. It sets out a path for forcing the mining industry to move toward environmental and social sustainability, avoid exploitation, and prevent global inequalities that allow advancement of the rich at the expense of the poor.

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