Dina Gilio-Whitaker | Indian Country Today
As opposition to the land-exchange deal that gave control of the Apache sacred site of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper Mining intensifies, a protest march has passed through New York City and arrived in Washington.
The land swap, slipped into the National Defense Authorization Bill in December 2014, could still be repealed, if a countermeasure introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva takes hold.
Resolution Copper Mining, beneficiary of the last-minute measure, is owned by Rio Tinto Group and BHP Billiton. Both parents have dismal human rights and environmental records. The subsidiary’s website recites such values as “accountability, respect, teamwork and integrity.” Front and center is its Native American Engagement campaign, which among other things provides scholarships to Native youth. (Sound familiar? Think Dan Snyder’s Original Americans Foundation).
But what do we really know about the company behind the project?
“Rio Tinto has an established record of respect and partnership with the indigenous people who are connected to the land where we operate,” claimed Project Director Andrew Taplin to San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler in a March 2014 letter inviting him to meet with a Rio Tinto executive.
Rambler, however, has said that the tribe is against engaging with the mining behemoth, especially regarding public lands.
“They asked to meet with us, but as a council we decided that our relationship and our trust responsibility lies with the federal government,” he told Indian Country Today Media Network in a recent interview. “And this is public land with the U.S. Department of Agriculture—it’s Tonto National Forest.”
In its corporate handbook, Rio Tinto professes to “support and respect human rights consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and actively seek to ensure we are not complicit in human rights abuses committed by others” and “respect the diversity of indigenous peoples, acknowledging the unique and important interests that they have in the land, waters and environment as well as their history, culture and traditional ways.”
A closer look, however, reveals that Rio Tinto, which owns 55 percent of Resolution Copper, has a long history of colluding with governments that undermine the rights of workers and indigenous peoples in order to exploit resources. That those resources often exist in indigenous territories means that Indigenous Peoples are subject to a sort of double jeopardy in which they are expected to form a labor pool, and further expected to be happy to be employed in the ripping up of their ancestral lands.
With $47 billion in revenues generated in 2014 alone and $83 billion in assets, Rio Tinto is considered one of the top three largest mining companies in the world, according to Statista.com. Rio Tinto mines many types of ore, including iron, bauxite, gold, diamonds, uranium, copper, coal and aluminum. Although based in Australia and London, Rio Tinto operates on six continents and works hard to project an image of environmental sustainability and social responsibility.
Rio Tinto claims to abide by the Global Reporting Initiative, a voluntary set of standards used by more than 6,000 companies internationally. The international labor rights group IndustriAll Global Union found, however, that just 60 percent of Rio Tinto’s sustainability claims were accurate in the social, environment, governance and economic categories. A study conducted by the group revealed that Rio Tinto had excluded controversial projects and community stakeholders from its claims, thus skewing the data.
In short, accounts of Rio Tinto’s unethical business practices could (and has) filled volumes. Here we list some of the most egregious, notorious transgressions against both Indigenous Peoples and labor rights—and often, both—worldwide.
From Franco’s Spain, to Apartheid South Africa
Rio Tinto has long been known to undermine workers’ rights, going back at least as far as 1930s Spain under dictator Francisco Franco, according to Green Left Weekly, an alternative newspaper in Australia. When workers in Rio Tinto mines attempted to organize, they were court martialed and executed.
Flash forward to the 1970s in Namibia, where Rio Tinto operated the notorious and essentially illegal Rössing uranium mine, working within apartheid-ruled South Africa, under United Nations-imposed anti-apartheid sanctions. The United Nations Council for Namibia described conditions there as “virtual slave labor under brutal conditions,” according to CorpWatch, an international watchdog group.
Indigenous Displacement, Madagascar
In the Fort Daughin region of Madagascar an ilmenite mine in 2007 forcibly displaced thousands of people from their homes with inadequate or no compensation, contradicting Rio Tinto’s stated ideals to “respect the laws and customs” of and “minimize adverse effects” to local communities. Graves were disrupted and losses also included access to forest resources that provide food, medicine, and firewood to indigenous populations.
A study by the UK-based conservation group Friends of the Earth concluded that “Rio Tinto’s mining project in Madagascar is not leading to poverty reduction. Nor is it helping to conserve and protect valuable ecological resources. Instead the company is failing to deliver on the ground, providing little of benefit to local communities or the wider economy, and undermining the rights and livelihoods of local people and the natural resources that they rely on.”
Mining and the Military: Grasberg Mine, West Papua
The island once known as New Guinea is divided into two regions: the eastern half comprises Papua New Guinea, and the western half is West Papua. West Papua has been fighting a brutal war for independence against the Indonesian government since 1962, with about 500,000 indigenous West Papuan lives lost in what has been dubbed the “forgotten war,” the Free West Papua Campaign says.
By the time the Indonesians asserted control over West Papua in 1969, massive deposits of copper and gold had been discovered there. The Grasberg mine—Rio Tinto’s open pit mine more than half a mile wide inside the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lorenz National Park—has been at the center of Indonesia’s violent repression for decades. Moreover, decades of dumping of toxic waste into West Papua’s rivers have wrought massive environmental destruction.
Indeed, the Norwegian government blacklisted Rio Tinto in 2008, divesting copy billion from the company because of environmental concerns in West Papua, according to BBC News.
Pollution, Displacement and War: Panguna Mine, Papua New Guinea
In the autonomous island region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, the Panguna Mine highlights a conflict between an indigenous population opposed to the mine and a state government’s desire to capitalize on it. The mine began operations in 1972 and was at the time the largest open pit copper mine in the world. For many years it provided 45 percent of Papua New Guinea’s export revenues. Indigenous Bougainvillians were forced off their territory, many uncompensated, and the land became so polluted that entire ecosystems became uninhabitable. The mine conflict led to a bloody 10-year-long secessionist war that resulted in the deaths of 15,000 to 20,000 people (approximately 10 percent of the island’s population), the investment-watchdog group Facing Finance reported.
The mine was shut down in 1989. In 2000 a lawsuit against Rio Tinto was filed in U.S. courts alleging human rights abuses, genocide, war crimes, cultural devastation and environmental destruction. The suit was dismissed in 2013 after another ruling that limited the reach of U.S. law in overseas human rights cases.
Borax Mine Lockout, Mojave Desert
At the Borax mine in California’s Mojave Desert—the largest borax mine on the planet—570 workers were locked out of a borates mine in 2010 when the union unanimously voted against a contract that would have given the company more leverage over employees, including seniority rules, the Los Angeles Times reported at the time. The workers eventually prevailed.
Changing Labor Laws in Australia
In Australia’s extremely remote Pilbara region, the site of the continent’s largest iron ore mine, the company is known by the 38,000 workers there for its opposition to worker organizing, as detailed by Working Life, a website devoted to employment stories. In another IndustriAll report, the union claims that as of March 2015 Rio Tinto was attempting to change Australian labor law in several ways that amount to a breaching of the International Labour Organization’s Conventions No. 87 and 98—guarantees on the right to organize, freedom of association and collective bargaining.