Swans Commentary » swans.com June 15, 2009  



Dreams Of Social Responsibility
Rio Tinto, Capitalism, and Indigenous Rights


by Michael Barker





(Swans - June 15, 2009 )   While democracy does not necessarily need an ever increasing number of mines to fuel its growth, capitalism does. Thus Rio Tinto fulfills a critical role for successful capitalist elites working to mine the heart of popular democracy, by providing them with easy access to the resources that are needed to ensure the continuity of their global empire. Maintaining such rapacious imperialist ventures requires a large degree of exploitation (of both humans and the environment), and Rio Tinto, like many other powerful transnational corporations, has no problem reaping financial rewards that arise out of this type of oppression.

In recent years Rio Tinto has industriously worked on recasting themselves in the public eye as a socially responsible corporation. Despite offering little transparency in relation to the cultural and institutional alterations to its organizational structure that would be necessary to minimize their historically damaging practices, it appears that their public relations departments have worked wonders; moreover, Rio Tinto has managed to insinuate itself in the work of groups that fight for the rights of the same people the mining industry oppresses. Consequently, this article interrogates these glaring contradictions in an attempt to understand what Rio Tinto really means when they say they are "socially responsible."

Critiques of Rio Tinto's well-engrained exploitative habits are numerous, but perhaps the most comprehensive examination of their global operations was Roger Moody's PLUNDER!: The Story of Rio Tinto Zinc (People against Rio Tinto and its Subsidiaries, 1992). More recently The Independent (UK) reported in late 2008 that the Norwegian government had "launched an unprecedented attack on the UK mining giant Rio Tinto, selling a £500m holding in the company after accusing it of 'grossly unethical conduct' relating to environmental damage." This charge was made in relation to the activities of Rio Tinto's Grasberg mining operations in Indonesia, which are run in partnership with Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold.

According to Mark Curtis's 2008 report "Fanning the Flames: The Role of British Mining Companies in Conflict and the Violation of Human Rights (pdf), the "Grasberg mine in West Papua, Indonesia has been probably the most heavily criticised mine in the world in recent years, featuring as the subject of a series of revealing media reports, particularly in the USA." Admittedly, focusing on one mine is not an overly useful way of demonstrating the negative impact of Rio Tinto's global mining activities. What it does provide is an example that Rio Tinto's publicly proclaimed socially responsible goals have not been applied in a manner that excludes exploitation. Writing in 2005 for The New York Times on the problems of the Grasberg mine, Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonner reported how:

Company records obtained by The Times show that from 1998 through 2004, Freeport-McMoRan gave nearly $20 million to military and police generals, colonels, majors and captains, and to military units. Individual commanders received tens of thousands of dollars, in one case up to $150,000, according to the documents. The records were provided by an individual close to Freeport-McMoRan and confirmed as authentic by current and former employees.

They continue, stating patently, that "payments to individual officers would raise questions of bribes," and then further demonstrated the anti-democratic nature of the mine's operations when they noted how "former company officials... helped set up a covert program... to spy on its environmental opponents." (1) Mark Curtis adds to The New York Times account and observes how "hundreds of thousands of dollars went to the Police Mobile Brigade, a paramilitary force known for human rights abuses, as well as an Indonesian general accused of human rights abuses during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor." Curtis suggests that:

Papuans, of whom around 40% live in poverty, have never been involved in any agreements with the company and have seen few benefits from its operations to set against the loss of their ancestral lands and the human rights abuses suffered by the local community. [...]

By contrast, Rio Tinto is doing well from the project: it earned $122 million from Grasberg in 2006, and $232 million the year before. The company has been reluctant to become publicly involved in answering criticisms about the mine's operations, often directing inquiries back to Freeport. This is despite the intertwining of staff: Leigh Clifford, Rio Tinto's Chief Executive from 2000 until 2007, was also a director of Freeport from 2000 to 2004.

At this point it should be noted that the use of covert programs to undermine the activities of environmental and human rights groups have recent roots in the illegal mechanizations of the intelligence agencies of Western governments (e.g., the US government's Counterintelligence Program), and can be linked to the US-backed Suharto dictatorship's liquidation (in the 1960s) of up to one million Indonesian citizens. Further, shortly after Rio Tinto acquired Alcan, in October 2007, the newly named Rio Tinto Alcan was named "War Profiteer of the Month" by War Resisters International. These intimate ties to the military-industrial complex do not prevent Rio Tinto employees from working to save the environment. For example, Rio Tinto Alcan's chief financial officer, Phillip Strachan, is a board member of the corporate backed Great Barrier Reef Foundation -- a foundation that describes itself as "Australia's pre-eminent independent fundraiser for coral reef research." Similarly, Alcan's former senior vice president of corporate and external affairs, Daniel Gagnier, is presently the chair of the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the latter group being headed by David Runnalls, who "worked with Barbara Ward to found the International Institute for Environment and Development" (see "Greenwashing Eden" for further details about this related group).

Despite the existence of such environmental connections, which may be better described as greenwash, Rio Tinto remains strongly committed to a nuclear powered (and weaponized) future, and it maintains two of the largest uranium mines in the world (one in Australia that is run by Energy Resources of Australia and the other in Namibia). (2) Chris Salisbury, the chief operating officer with the Bauxite and Alumina division of Rio Tinto Alcan, is the former chair of the pro-nuclear lobby group, the Australian Uranium Association (and a board member of Energy Resources of Australia). This connection to the nuclear lobby group is particularly relevant to this article as in February 2009 the Australian Uranium Association established an Indigenous Dialogue Group, which included Professor Marcia Langton as one of their founding members. Langton was a fitting choice as an indigenous representative chosen to sit alongside mining CEOs, as Langton chairs the pro-corporate Cape York Institute, a "public policy organization that champions reform in Indigenous economic and social policies," that is headed by the neoliberal indigenous rights activist, Noel Pearson.

Contrary to its demonstrated willingness to abuse human rights in developing countries, Rio Tinto has adopted an alternative strategy in Australia (since 1996) and it has actively sought to establish working -- rather than exploiting -- relationships with indigenous peoples. The foundation of this strategy was marked by the creation of the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund, which is described on the Rio Tinto Web site as being part of a "strategy of working in active partnership with Aboriginal people in Australia." No doubt such efforts are necessitated by the desire to be seen to be acting as a socially responsible corporation (in an imperial homeland); something which is not necessary in far flung countries where the ongoing abuse of indigenous populations and landscapes rarely makes the headlines of the mainstream media.

The chair of the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund, Chris Renwick, is the chairman of Coal and Allied Industries (which is managed by Rio Tinto Coal Australia), and amongst his other corporate connections he is a board member of Downer-EDI, where he sits alongside Michael Harding, the chairman of the Army Project Governance Board of the Australian Department of Defence. Here it should be highlighted that Rio Tinto has always maintained direct military ties and Paul Skinner, the former chair of Rio Tinto (2003-09), was and still is a "member of the Defence Management Board (DMB) at the Ministry of Defence, a high-level committee whose role is to deliver the aims set by the UK's defence policy, including to 'achieve success in the military tasks we undertake, at home and abroad'."

Former Aboriginal Fund board chair, Paul Wand (1996-2005), was responsible for setting up the fund, and from 1995 until 2000 he also served as Rio Tinto's vice president of aboriginal relations. (3) At present Wand is the chair of the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre (a position he has held since their founding in 2003), and this Centre aims to "help to create economic opportunities for desert people, and make a demonstrable difference for remote Aboriginal communities, through the application of excellent research and training." In addition, Wand is an associate of Cooperative Change, a consulting firm that "facilitate[s] two-way and three-way collaboration in all directions across the corporate, government and community sectors." This consultancy is headed by Janina Gawler, who is a former executive officer of the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund, and her husband, who is the former president of the Law Institute of Victoria, 1999-2000.

The Cooperative Change senior consultant, Jo Victoria, has previously worked on "projects focusing on national Indigenous policy development" with indigenous rights activist Professor Mick Dodson. This indirect connection between a progressive indigenous activist and Rio Tinto illustrates the desperate position of dependence that Aboriginal people are in within Australia. Even Professor Lowitja O'Donoghue, who was the founding chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (1990-96) -- a progressive body that was set up by a labour government in 1990 and dismantled by a conservative government in 2004 -- went on to serve as a board member of the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund (from 1996 until 2005). (4)

While the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund's support of corporate projects like Noel Pearson's Cape York Institute is to be expected, it is disappointing to learn that the Fund has also successfully penetrated the work of the progressive Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (which includes Mick Dodson on their advisory committee). This Centre "was established in March 1990 under an agreement between the Australian National University (ANU) and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission." Thus Rio Tinto, in addition to sponsoring the Centre's "Visiting Indigenous Fellowships program," also funded a research project at the Centre (between 2002 and 2006) along with the Australian Research Council and the Committee for Economic Development of Australia that was titled "Indigenous Community Organizations and Miners: Partnering Sustainable Regional Development?"

More recently still, in June 2009, the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund has provided funds to support an annual indigenous festival in Queensland (Australia) that boasts of being "the most comprehensive showcase of Indigenous arts from across the country and around the world." Accepting funding for such an event from a leading mining corporation, especially owing to the festival's international angle, is clearly in bad taste, although Rio Tinto must be counting their PR blessings -- all the more because Mick Dodson is giving the opening speech for the event. (5)

Finally, having listed some of the types of projects that the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund has financed, it is critical to put Rio Tinto's philanthropic efforts into perspective. This is because since the founding of its Aboriginal Fund (in 1996) they have only distributed around A$20 million (or US$16 million) in funding to groups across Australia. This is only a drop in the ocean when compared with the immense profits Rio Tinto has reaped from destroying the environment and trampling roughshod over human rights. Indeed, according to the Fortune 500 global company ranking for 2005, Rio Tinto ranked as the 10th most profitable company in the world, and while their net earnings were US$5.2 billion in 2005, the following year their earnings had grown to a massive US$7.4 billion. To try to put Rio Tinto's minor support for indigenous Australians into further relief, John Pilger noted that "When John Howard came to office in 1996, his first act was to cut $A400 million from the Aboriginal affairs budget." (6)

As this brief review of Rio Tinto's mining and philanthropic activities has illustrated, to date Rio Tinto has not made a significant commitment to becoming a socially responsible corporation. Far from it, Rio Tinto regularly demonstrates that it is as socially irresponsible as ever. They have, of course, provided some much needed money to a limited number of groups and individuals, but in any meaningful sense of the word this cannot be considered an aid for creating self determination; rather it is an aid for creating dependence on imperialist power. This money is best categorized as belonging to Rio Tinto's public relations budget. Unhappily, the tactic of replacing government funding (generated by tax payers) by corporate funding (generated through tax evasion) is not new, and it is a trend that all concerned citizens must give serious consideration. (7) At this juncture there appear to be two primary solutions that could be adopted by such citizens to counter the insidious colonization of civil society by such corporate interests. The first involves raising public awareness of the issues outlined in this article in the hope of forcing the government to reinstate public support to community groups working for the public interest (like for example the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission), and to provide adequate compensation for stolen wages along with public assistance to help indigenous communities become autonomous. The second and perhaps more sustainable solution revolves around generating public support for philanthropic activities that are disengaged from the grasp of corporate elites. In this manner, already existing public support for charitable activities, which is still high despite the financial crisis, can potentially be diverted towards groups that seriously challenge the injustices created by capitalism. This will then enable us as individual members of society to collectively work to build and support organizations that vocalize realistic, not capitalistic, solutions to the world's growing problems.




1.  "For years, to secure Freeport-McMoRan's domain, James Moffett, a Louisiana-born geologist who is the company chairman, assiduously courted Indonesia's dictator, Suharto, and his cronies. Freeport-McMoRan paid for their vacations, some of their children's college education, and cut them in on deals that made them rich, current and former employees said.

"On the Freeport-McMoRan board, in the United States, Moffett turned to influential people outside the fields of mining, like Henry Kissinger, the former U.S. secretary of state, and J. Stapleton Roy, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia.

"Together with a roster of former CIA and U.S. military officials, those powerful allies helped Freeport-McMoRan navigate the intricate byways of Indonesian politics as well as its deepening entanglement with the military." Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonner, "Freeport-Rio Tinto: Gold's Other Price," New York Times, December 28, 2005.

The international media's obsession with the corruption associated with the Grasberg mine may have a lot to do with other related efforts to assuage the global public's concern that foreign governments are clamping down on the abuse of power that took place under the US-backed Suharto regime.  (back)

2.  For two recent critiques of all things nuclear see David Bradbury's excellent documentaries "Blowin' in the Wind" (2005) and "A Hard Rain" (2007). Bradbury has also produced the documentary "Jabiluka" (1997), which examines the struggle of the Mirrar Aboriginal people against the Rio Tinto's Energy Resources of Australia Jabiluka uranium mine, in the Northern Territory, Australia.  (back)

3.  Current indigenous board members of the Rio Tinto Aboriginal Fund are Sandra Eades, Tanya Hosch, and Aden Ridgeway; while the four other Rio Tinto board representatives are Simon Nish, Fiona Nicholls, Joanne Farrell, and Penny Jaski.  (back)

4.  Like many other progressive citizens, Lowitja O'Donoghue has become embroiled in the work of Sustainable Population Australia, thus when they were formerly Australians for an Ecologically Sustainable Population, she served as a trustee of their Sustainable Population Fund (which was set up in 1996). For further critical details about this group, see "Sustainable Population Australia and and the Population-National Security Complex" and Malcolm King's article "Anti-Populationists - The New Imperialists."

Similarly, it is worrying that O'Donoghue's name is connected to the work of the B'nai B'rith Anti-Defamation Commission (where she serves on their advisory council). This is because this Commission is related to the more widely known US-based Anti-Defamation League which describes itself as "the world's leading agency in the fight against anti-Semitism." For an overview of the criticisms of this group, see Jason Kunin, "Jews Are Not an Equity-Seeking Group: How Myths about Anti-Semitism Distort Human Rights in Our Schools and Universities," Znet, May 30, 2009.  (back)

5.  By funding the Dreaming Festival it is clear that Rio Tinto will be able to have little say over the actions of more activist performers like the anti-nuclear Australian roots and reggae band Blue King Brown, and likewise concerned citizens have already made plans to protest Rio Tinto's involvement in this event. The festival is also showing all six episodes of the excellent SBS documentary series "First Australians" (2008). Although not being shown at the festival another excellent mini-series that was recently broadcast by PBS in the US is the five part television series "We Shall Remain" (2009) which tells "the story of pivotal moments in U.S. history from the Native American perspective." (Both television series can be viewed in full online.)  (back)

6.  John Pilger, The New Rulers of the World, Verso, 2002, (page 168).  (back)

7.  In 2002, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported in an article titled "ATSIC Welcomes Corporate Sector Involvement in New Program" that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission was supportive of a new program which had "in-principle support" from the government, and A$2.5 million from Rio Tinto to "survey the health of indigenous children, address fetal alcohol syndrome and train indigenous project officers to help their communities with issues such as domestic violence and child abuse." The article then noted that "ATSIC's Cairns chairperson Terry O'Shane says while he has some hesitation about the Government shifting its funding responsibilities to the corporate sector, a joint approach may be the most effective way to tackle these issues."

However, in another version of the same article published by the ABC on the same day (but placed online four hours earlier) the title of the article had been "ATSIC Welcomes Child Health, Alcohol Abuse Funding." Moreover, instead of welcoming corporate support as the latter title suggested, O'Shane was clearly opposed to it. The article noted that "ATSIC's Cairns chairperson, Terry O'Shane, says while the program is certainly needed, the Government cannot be allowed to shift its funding responsibilities to the corporate sector." However, the article then continued by quoting O'Shane as saying: "We just need to be careful that in terms of a partnership that the government of Australia doesn't renege its responsibility in terms of if corporate Australia doesn't fund a program like this then the program doesn't get funded, then I think that's a bit of a problem." The manner in which O'Shane's comments were re-interpreted by the ABC clearly demonstrates how the mainstream media plays an important role in keeping the public in the dark about the problems associated with corporate funding.  (back)


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Michael Barker is an independent researcher who currently resides in Australia. His other articles can be accessed at michaeljamesbarker.wordpress.com.



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Published June 15, 2009