Tuesday 23 March 2021 9:56 am

Rio Tinto to partner with Indigenous leaders despite native claims of 'no visibility'

Rio Tinto will set up a panel to better manage its relationships with indigenous groups after the mining giant destroyed sacred rock shelters in Australia last year.

Former CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and other senior executives, Chris Salisbury, Simone Niven and Simon Thompson, have all stepped down following the controversy.

The destruction of Jukkan Gorge in May has spurred the mining giant to re-define its ‘best practices’ by consulting with traditional owners, host communities and independent groups, the miner said. 

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The Indigenous Advisory Group will be set up to ensure Rio Tinto has a better understanding of Indigenous cultures in Australia, including at board level.

The Rio Tinto board, led by Simon Thompson, argued that trimming wages and bonuses was satisfactory punishment, which saw Salisbury receive total remuneration of £3.7m, including termination benefits and unvested share awards, from £1.6m in 2019.

Salisbury lost a £620,000 short-term incentive, meanwhile Niven lost out on £525,000 in short-term incentives but received £5.1m, including £1.1m in termination benefits and unvested share awards.

Chairman Simon Thompson, who left earlier this month, was the fourth senior leader to depart Rio Tinto over its wilful destruction of the sacred Aboriginal site.

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‘No visibility’

The move has mixed reviews, as the director at Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation (WGAC), Tony Bevan, shot down Rio’s claims of diversifying decision making as a marketing stunt, according to Reuters.

WGAC, one of nine Aboriginal Corporations that have agreements with the miner, released a scorecard earlier this month to rate mining companies in the region on how well they comply with environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards. 

93 per cent of Eastern Guruma, where WGAC is based, hosts mining camps, with Rio Tinto one of the biggest miners in the region.

Read more: Aboriginal group plans to score mining companies after Rio Tinto disaster

“WGAC is yet to see any evidence of a strengthened and improved approach to cultural heritage management,” Bevan explained.

“We have no visibility on the significantly strengthened internal practices, policies and governance that is referred to.”

The Indigenous group also voiced concerns that the advisory group could lead to standardised approaches that would not meet the needs of individual groups in Western Australia. 

Accountability

Jukkan Gorge, a cave system in Australia that showed signs of continuous human occupation for over 46,000 years, was blown up by Rio Tinto knowingly.

A parliamentary inquiry found the iron ore giant to have gone against the wishes of traditional land-owners, like the San Carlos Apache tribe, despite knowing of the archaeological value. 

The inquiry found Rio Tinto’s actions “inexcusable”. 

“Rio knew the value of what they were destroying but blew it up anyway,” the report said.

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