MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Pilbara Aboriginal Meeting Condemns Rio Tinto

Published by MAC on 2005-05-31


Pilbara Aboriginal Meeting Condemns Rio Tinto

Media Release of Yamatji Marlpa Barna Baba Maaja Aboriginal Corporation, Yamatji Land and Sea Council, Pilbara Native Title Service, Native Title Representative Body

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

More than 750 Aboriginal People representing traditional owners organisations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia have called on mining giant Rio Tinto to improve its business standards in its dealings with Indigenous traditional owners.

The call was made at a meeting held on the weekend at the Herbert Parker Rest Area on the Yule River, some 60 kilometres south of Port Hedland, Western Australia.

Rio Tinto s local subsidiary, Pilbara Iron, was condemned for failing to engage genuinely with traditional owners in its native title negotiations and for not meeting its own social responsibility standards. In its current negotiations, Pilbara Iron is attempting to lower standards now being accepted by other major companies in the region and accepted elsewhere in Australia by other Rio Tinto companies.

Pilbara Iron says one thing in its public relations, but does another said Gladys Walker, of the Guruma and Innawonga People.

Pilbara Iron claims to act to the highest standards when dealing with traditional owners, but we have not seen much to demonstrate this, said Roy Tommy, of the Innawonga people.

We have been genuine when we have dealt with this company, but they have not been straight with us, said Mr Tommy.

The meeting was organised to discuss the impact on the Pilbara of the region s massive resources boom, resulting from the enormous demand for iron ore to meet economic growth in China.

More than ten percent of the adult Indigenous population of the Pilbara a region bigger than Spain and France combined attended the meeting, as wells as members of native title claims from the Murchison, Gascoyne and the Western Desert.

The Native Title Act has made it necessary for Rio Tinto to negotiate with traditional owners regarding future mining activity. However, the right to negotiate is not retrospective even in cases like this, where the company is still conducting mining operations established before the Native Title Act commenced. Despite this, recent industry standards in Australia have seen companies seek to reach fair agreement about past and present mining activities.

For many companies, good business practice is dependent upon social consensus and corporate responsibility , said Simon Hawkins, Executive Director of the Pilbara Native Title Service, the peak Indigenous representative body for the area.

Pilbara Iron is engaged in a race with BHP-Billiton, Hope Downs and Fortescue Metals to meet the booming Chinese market and good community relations are a critical factor in speedy project development.

Kuruma Marthudunera Elder, Neil Finlay said that Our country has been mined for iron ore for 30 years, making billions of dollars worth of profit for Rio Tinto and Robe River and nothing has been done for us while our people live in poverty at their door and die twenty years before their time.

There is no doubt that Rio Tinto has a moral responsibility to return some of the profits it has made from Kuruma Marthudunera country back into the Indigenous community, said Simon Hawkins.

If Rio Tinto really does want to meet the standards of corporate responsibility, as it says, then it must recognise that by mining our country without the traditional owners agreement, it is acting unfairly and unjustly, Ms Natalie Parker of the Nyiyaparli People said.

Simon Hawkins said that the fact that so many people had attended the meeting clearly indicated the importance of the issues being discussed.

A meeting of this size in a region so vast is remarkable, Mr Hawkins said. It clearly indicates just how big and pressing these subjects are.

PNTS represents the majority of native title claims in the Pilbara region and it has seen first-hand the approach that Pilbara Iron has taken in its dealings with traditional owners and their claim groups.

Negotiations with Pilbara Iron have been about mines that are reaping billions of dollars and generating huge profits for its shareholders and has been doing so for years. All our clients are asking for is a recognition that this is happening on their country through word and fair deed, Mr Hawkins said.

In addition to the traditional owners and staff from PNTS, the meeting was also attended by observers from State and Commonwealth Governments.

In other business at the meeting, traditional owners discussed the native title working group system and called for greater engagement with government. The system was acknowledged as a suitable vehicle that was compatible with traditional law and custom and was available to government as a means of talking directly with Aboriginal communities.

- ENDS -

Notes to editors:

· Between 1970 and 2000 Pilbara mining companies produced 160 million tonnes; it is thought that between 2000 and 2006, 300 million tonnes will be produced in the region.

· YMBBMAC is a native title representative body which represents the traditional owners of the Yamatji (Murchison and Gascoyne) and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. In the Yamatji region it operates as the Yamatji Land and Sea Council and in the Pilbara as the Pilbara Native Title Service.

· YMBBMAC has a representative area of almost one million square kilometres - around 21 times the size of Switzerland.

· The organisation represents 31 native title claims across the Yamatji and Pilbara regions.

· YMBBMAC has a fundamental aim to avoid litigation and use negotiation wherever possible. By pursuing this policy, it has become a clear illustration of the success that native title representative bodies can achieve for the communities they represent.

For further information, contact:

Marjorie Syddall, Public Relations & Communications Specialist

Yamatji Marlpa Barna Baba Maaja Aboriginal Corporation

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