MAC: Mines and Communities

Wilson defends Rio Tinto's global operations

Published by MAC on 2003-09-24

Wilson defends Rio Tinto's global operations

Sir Robert Wilson of Rio Tinto Visits the NWT - Rio Tinto Chairman Describes Present Day Mining Operations

CBC Special Report, September 24, 2003

CBC: Rio Tinto is the world's largest mining company [actually the second biggest - MAC], with operations on every continent. In the North West Territories of Canada (NWT) the company owns 60 percent of Diavik Diamond Mines. The chairman of Rio Tinto has been in the north this week on a farewell tour. Sir Robert Wilson joined the company in 1970. Last night, he sat down with reporter Julie Green to reflect on how the business of mining has changed and how Diavik is an example of the future.

GREEN: So, Robert, what can the world's largest mining company do for the communities in which it mines beyond providing jobs?

WILSON: Well, it's quite difficult to generalize an answer to that because communities are so different in one part of the world as compared with another. In a sense, it might be best to use the example here with the Diavik operation. I think what we can bring is a little more than just jobs. What we are hoping to be able to do is help develop community capacity so that when those mines close, as every mine must, we are leaving behind an ability to continue economic viability without the mine operation being there.

GREEN: Can you give me some specifics on how that might work?

WILSON: There are a number of joint ventures now that are primarily dedicated to servicing the Diavik mining operation, but there might be other operations, other commercial activities, in this area well after we've gone. There might be mining operations. There might be other activities in the Northwest Territories and these joint venture organizations will have the capability of servicing other economic activities the same way they service us.

GREEN: Do you have joint ventures of this kind in other operations of yours around the world?

WILSON: We do, but I would say they are probably relatively better developed here than in most parts of the world. That's partly because we entered into these sorts of discussions from the very early stages of consideration of how this might be developed. So the thinking of how it might relate to and contribute to local communities has been very much a core part of the ethos of Diavik's development in a way which we've done in other operations, but it's been more in an ad hoc fashion by and large. I think that's one reason why it's different here. Another reason why it's different is that the communities here are very well organized and they are well educated. So that means there is a head start in terms of being able to establish a partnership footing with these groups.

GREEN: When you talk about involvement with the local community, what kind of meaning does that have for environmental issues?

WILSON: First of all, the identification of what the key environmental issues are is partly a purely scientific engineering process, but also particularly in an area like this, where we are working with communities for whom the land is very much a core integral part of their own lifestyle, they can point us in the right direction where there are issues which are concerning them. We need to address those issues, of course.

GREEN: Do you find that that's the case elsewhere as well?

WILSON: Yes, although it might show itself in very different ways with different communities. But, yes, there is always the need for a dialogue with locals about the issues which they believe we need to address.

GREEN: Was it this way when you started with Rio Tinto 30-some years ago? Was there this kind of focus on involving the local communities in mining?

WILSON: No. There wasn't that focus at that stage. It was very much more piecemeal and individual issues of some managers. That's part of the reason why this industry -- I am not talking about Rio Tinto but the industry in general - has left behind a legacy and developed a bad reputation in terms of having created problems rather than resolved them. That's one of the things the industry is now telling its mine to address in a much more systematic way.

GREEN: What's motivating that change?

WILSON: I think an understanding on the part of the industry. It needs to be recognized as a good partner for the local community. Obviously there's a background to this too. There is a much greater societal awareness of environmental issues than there were 30 years ago, but putting that to one side, we are also in the industry much more aware today of the need to establish long-term sound relationships with the company understanding as best it can and respecting the cultural values of those communities.

GREEN: What kind of impact do these changes have on competitiveness and profitability within the mining sector?

WILSON: Well, it's very difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify that in any precise way. I think it's more a matter of a belief of certain companies and certainly Rio Tinto, that this is the way an industry needs to operate in the future if it's going to operate satisfactorily and if it's going to mitigate some of the risks which otherwise actually undermine the viability of a business. So proper care and attention on environmental issues may cost money on an ongoing basis, but it also reduces the risk of a catastrophic closure because of environmental problems. The same applies incidentally to the relationships with other communities. If a company doesn't have world-based relationships, then that too can undermine an operation in terms of the frictions that can arise.

GREEN: Thanks very much for your time.

WILSON: Thank you.

CBC: Sir Robert Wilson is the chairman of Rio Tinto, the majority owner of Diavik Diamonds speaking with Julie Green.

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