Rio Tinto has consistently put its head in the sand despite pleadings from Traditional Owners to walk shoulder to shoulder.

In July 2016, Wintawari Guruma Elders on behalf of their Native Title Corporation delivered a powerful challenge to Rio Tinto’s Chief Executive of Iron Ore, Chris Salisbury, for the 50-year celebration address at Tom Price.

Rio Tinto had reminisced about the past 50 years of achievement, underpinning Australia’s economic growth.

“The Pilbara’s vast iron ore deposits, and the people who developed them, have helped build modern Australia and some of the world’s leading economies,” said Salisbury.

“The relationships formed with local Pilbara communities, community and government partners, Traditional Owners, and business partners and customers have been vital to our success.”

In what was meant to be the Welcome to Country speech to Rio Tinto, Traditional Owners instead took a stand:

 

“Unfortunately, we cannot stand here today and welcome you to Country when our people are worse off than when no mining existed.

“We are not being paid compensation for three Rio Tinto mines operating on our Country.

“We are not being employed.

“We are not getting the contracts and business opportunities that the mining industry prides itself on. Outcomes for the Eastern Guruma people [from Rio Tinto operations] have been poor.”

“We are not being respected for our decisions to protect Country.”

“Rio always wants us to consent to the destruction of our Country for mining so that Rio can make more money for its shareholders.

“As Traditional Owners we want to challenge Rio to do the right thing, to adopt a real social licence [to operate]. The power is in Rio’s hands to ensure justice, to create jobs, to create business opportunities, to enable us to create a good future for our young people, full of opportunity and choice.

“You have the power to make a real difference to our people. We are standing here as Elders, looking back on our past. We are trying to hold on to the things that are important to us as a People.

“We are standing in the middle also looking forward. We are trying to bring opportunities that will keep our young people strong and proud of who we are.

“As we hold on to these things that are important to us, we want to build a better future for our people. The challenge is for Rio to walk with us side by side to create this legacy together.”

 

Rio Tinto started its agreement making with Aboriginal people in the mid-1990s and these agreements are still in force today.

A number of Rio Tinto agreements are almost 20 years old and despite having review obligations, they have never been updated or reviewed.

One of the key principles in Rio Tinto agreements include no ability to object under any State or Commonwealth law. This means Traditional Owners are prevented as citizens of Australia from exercising basic rights under Section 18 heritage applications in the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 (WA).

Rio Tinto Native Title Agreements release Rio Tinto from any actions or claims of any kind under Commonwealth and State laws including:

  • Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (Cth)
  • Trade Practices Act 1974
  • Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth)
  • Native Title Act 1993 (Cth)
  • Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972

An average person reading the strict regulations around these agreements would conclude that Rio Tinto are oppressive in their actions because Native Title groups cannot object to them in any form.

The power imbalance between Rio Tinto’s negotiation team and Traditional Owners is stark in agreement making. The rights of Rio Tinto always take precedent over Traditional Owners. Aboriginal cultural sites can only be protected if Rio Tinto agree to it. There is no autonomy in preserving, protecting or minimising impacts on sites.

Rio Tinto has placed itself as judge and executioner of what’s in the best interests of Traditional Owners, and therefore what history can be protected is a matter for Rio Tinto to decide.

It reminds me of the Native Welfare days when the Chief Protector of Aborigines decided what was in the best interests of Aboriginal people.

In this context, Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Ben Wyatt, should seek assurances from Rio Tinto and industry that they are not using their market power to force Traditional Owners into agreements that are not fair.

The Minister’s suggestion that government should get out of the way and leave these agreements to operate in private has not delivered for Traditional Owners when the scale of fairness and balance does not exist in the current legal system.

If Rio Tinto does not review and renegotiate its outdated agreements, the only solution is a Royal Commission into agreement making with Aboriginal people in Australia.

With the power to open all agreements up for scrutiny of transparency and fairness, only then will Rio Tinto be able to be the industry leader they claim to be.

By Wayne Bergmann