NIT Editorial

There is growing consternation and real concern amongst Pilbara Traditional Owners that Rio Tinto is not interested in substantively righting the wrongs of the past decades where it has been making massive profits for its shareholders while many of the Pilbara mob live in Third World conditions.

It was not that long ago that there were more Pilbara Aboriginal males in jail than there were Pilbara Aboriginal males in Year 12. There is something seriously and frighteningly wrong.

The outrage that erupted from Rio Tinto’s wilful and deliberate destruction of Juukan Gorge has not yet diminished, however Rio Tinto has obviously made a commercial decision that while it is prepared to ‘modernise’ its agreements with Traditional Owners it is not prepared to engage in negotiations with Traditional Owners about paying increased compensation or royalties for the hundreds of millions of tonnes of high-grade iron ore it pulls from the ground annually.

Take Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation for example. They have six Rio Tinto mines on Eastern Guruma Country. From these six mines Rio Tinto has made hundreds of billions of dollars in profit. Fortunately for Rio and unfortunately for Eastern Guruma Traditional Owners, Rio only pays royalties on three of those six mines. They refuse to pay royalties on the other three mines because they are not legally obliged to do so.

In other words, they will continue to mine the country, destroy Wintawari Guruma sites and seriously impact the Native Title rights granted by the Federal Court, while making billions of dollars in profit from the three mines.

Rio Tinto has been mining at Tom Price for some 55 years now without paying a single cent to Traditional Owners – simply because they choose not to.

It’s both perverse and amoral; a shocking reminder that Rio Tinto’s Board and management are more concerned about profits and dividends than the relationship they have with the Traditional Owners whose lands they are operating on and profiting off.

Where is the so-called ‘social licence’ which Rio trumpets about on a regular basis, but much less so of late given their appalling behaviour and contempt for Traditional Owners regarding Juukan Gorge.

As part of the existing agreements between Wintawari Guruma and Rio Tinto, there is a clause that calls for a review of the agreement. In 2015, Wintawari Guruma requested Rio Tinto sit down with them in good faith and review the agreement.

In the lead up to the meeting, Wintawari Guruma had observed that Rio were making massive profits and that they, as Traditional Owners, were getting very little in return. When the request was made to address the compensation clause and an increase in royalties it was flatly refused by Rio Tinto who said that under the agreement, they were not legally obliged to talk about royalties and that they would not do so under any circumstances.

This obviously caused a great deal of anger and frustration for the Traditional Owners, who said that when they signed the agreement, they believed they had the right on a periodic basis to renegotiate the agreement in relation to royalties payable.

Also significant is the fact that the original agreements were signed in a different era, some 20 years ago, when Rio’s mining footprint and impact on Country was significantly different to what it is today.

Back then Rio only operated three relatively small, contained mines on Eastern Guruma Country. The mines were nothing like the large-scale behemoths they are today. The Traditional Owners who signed the original agreements could never have contemplated the massive expansion of mining and the resulting destruction of their Country and culture.

To hold the current Traditional Owners to these archaic agreements with no prospect of meaningful review, ever, is an obscenity.

The lack of meaningful review of the original agreement raises the issue that the Traditional Owners did not give free, prior and informed consent when they signed off on the agreement because they did not understand that the review of the agreement was administrative and not substantive.

This means they had no powers to compel Rio Tinto to renegotiate anything. The Traditional Owners could surely not have known that they were giving away all of their rights for generations to come.

If they did not give free, prior and informed consent there is a possibility that some agreements between Traditional Owners and Rio Tinto may be null and void.

This issue of free, prior and informed consent has also been raised by PKKP and indeed by the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) who asked Simon Hawkins, the CEO of Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC) if YMAC could provide evidence that the Traditional Owners gave free, prior and informed consent when YMAC signed off on the agreement between multiple Traditional Owner groups and Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto and its shareholders now have a decision to make. Are they going to give more than lip service towards righting their wrongs or are they going to do only what they are legally obliged to do and keep stuffing their pockets to the detriment of the Traditional Owners whose land they currently operate on, with callous disregard for decency and respect?