MAC: Mines and Communities

London Calling! May 3 2003

Published by MAC on 2003-05-03

London Calling! May 3 2003

An emperor with no clothes

“London Calling” finds that Robert Wilson’s retiring performance at this year’s Rio Tinto AGM comes straight out of a storybook..

Long standing, if not long suffering Rio Tinto plc watchers will have been faintly tickled by one of Robert Wilson’s comments at the last annual general meeting over which he’ll preside as chair. Before departing with millions of purloined dollars tucked between his braces, he says he had totted up the pros and cons of his seven year stint at the head of the world’s most criticised mining conglomerate. But he was blowed if he knew on which side “of the ledger” to place those AGMs. By the time he retreated from this year’s ritual (ten minutes ahead of lunch and, as always, leaving many questions still to be raised) he may have got his answer. Pummeled by shareholders from left and right - trade unionists, small shareholder, Indigenous and human rights, advocates - Wilson’s crest drooped lower than it has for several years. This nadir was reflected in the British and Australian press the following day. The London Guardian headlined its story “Investors barrack Rio Tinto bosses” while the Melbourne Age was equally disparaging: “Rio Tinto bosses duck shareholders”.

The April 17th conflab also marked the 25th anniversary of the founding of Partizans - People against Rio Tinto and its Subsidiaries - confirming its standing as the world’s longest-running campaign which focuses on the activities of just one corporation.

Partizans carries its own a ledger of sorts. On the plus side (inter alia) is the fact that it helped force Rio Tinto to withdraw from the manufacture of IFC’s in the late eighties, and made it confront its critics in public a few years later. (However this lese-majeste doesn’t include spokespeople for Partizans itself. An independent film crew which had lined up RT’s Andrew Vickerman, to speak the company case after this year’s AGM, saw him beat a hasty retreat - literally - when he glimpsed Partizans people socialising with the film’s director).

As for the debit side, London Calling could fill a whole accounts book with the company’s intrinsic hubris and the tissues of its corporate deceit.

Mercenary objectives

Let’s take a few points which shareholders attempted to raise at this week's rally. First, Rio Tinto’s alliance with US-based Freeport at its Grasberg mine in West Papua - not just the world’s biggest single mining enterprise but arguably its most destructive as well. Earlier this year Freeport-Rio Tinto was compelled to reveal its covert multi-million dollar financing of the notorious Indonesian military (TNI) to “protect” its interests from local dissidents and the independence movement, OPM. But, as testified by the Australian human rights and development agency ACFOA, horrendous allegations of atrocities against Papuans by soldiers using Freeport's facilities, were being made even before Rio Tinto doled out around US$ 1.8 billion to bolster Freeport in 1995. In March that year Partizans asked that the company allow shareholders to debate this contract before it were signed and delivered. The request was treated with contempt by then-chair, Derek Birkin. According to his apologist, company secretary, J S Bradley, Partizans' allegations of Freeport’s complicity with the military were "manifestly both absurd and disgraceful". Just a week before the 1995 AGM, the deadly deal was done. Who's looking disgraced now?

What’s worse, in 2002 Wilson, along with other corporate chiefs, proudly launched the “Publish-What-You-Pay” initiative, calling on British companies to discover and reveal precisely the damning information on military collusion that Freeport-Rio Tinto has now had to divulge. In this context the term “blood money” seems a euphemism. (Surely it's not only the trade in “conflict diamonds” which should require a Kimberley-type process to check miners’ reliance on state militias, like the TNI, that function as mercenaries?)

The rush to renege

Let’s also consider Wilson’s ostensibly pro-active policy on Indigenous rights, as canonised in the company’s latest version of its business policy, “The Way We Work”. Quite plainly, such a policy doesn’t exist. Asked whether the company would hand back its Poboya concession in Central Sulawesi, so that local people were no longer threatened by the prospect of mining, Wilson stroppily replied: “I said it last year and will say it again: we aren’t at Poboya and won’t be there”. That’s a lie: Poboya is still in Rio Tinto’s hands; what’s more the company recently concluded a farm-in agreement with Newcrest to sell on the project if permission for further exploration were granted by the Indonesian government.

Wilson also appeared to confirm that Rio Tinto won’t exploit the huge Jabiluka uranium deposit on Aboriginal land in northern Australia if the people don’t want it to. For more than three years the Mirrar have demanded Rio Tinto get out of their traditional territory: any reasonable observer would wonder why the company hasn’t done so already. Within ten days the issue had been thrown back to square one. At the ERA AGM in Australia on April 28th, the chair of this wholly-owned Rio Tinto subsidiary flatly refused to sign a guarantee to the Mirrar that the Jabiluka site would be returned.

You’d have thought that Rio Tinto could at least offer an unequivocal undertaking not to re-open the Bougainville mine - and Wilson apparently did just that. Well that’s alright then! - Except that Barry Cusack, chair of Rio Tinto’s Bougainville Copper subsidiary (BCL) had, just the previous week, strongly hinted it might re-negotiate re-entry to the site. And this was partially confirmed on April 28th when the Papua New Guinea minister of mines dubbed the BCL play an “open minded proposal”.

Spotlighting the company’s increasing involvement in Turkey, Laos, and China, another shareholders’ claim, that Rio Tinto’s human rights “policy” isn’t worth the Annual Report it’s written in, began to look convincing. “If we refused to get involved in every country where abuses occur, then we wouldn’t mine anywhere!” declared the beleaguered Bob. “You said it!” came an interjection from the floor.

Tibet or not Tibet? Hardly the question!

On one controversial matter at least, Robert Wilson could stand clean: Rio Tinto would never enter Tibet, so long as it was under the Chinese imperial yoke. But the company is better positioned than any other mining multinational for a multitude of prospects in the Peoples Republic under the new regime.

If, even while protesting its respect for human rights, Rio Tinto could bankroll the massive exploitation of West Papua (a territory whose recent history bears considerable resemblance to that of Tibet) Wilson’s undertaking seems as hollow as a plundered Argyle pipe.

[Sources: Guardian (London) 18/4/2003; Melbourne Age 18/4/03; Financial Times, 15-16/3/03; Letter to R Moody from J S Bradley, RTZ, London, April 25 1995; MPI/WALHI/JATAM statement on Poboya 17/4/2003; AAP 19/4/2003; Daily Telegraph (Australia) 19/4/03]

Next week: London Calling looks at new mining investment in China, as well as the British and Canadian players set on making killings in the country.

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