The year 2020 will go down in history as disaster in ‘leadership’.

We have seen the Prime Minister’s judgment questioned when he went on holidays in Hawaii when the bush fires hit the east coast of Australia.

We have seen the leadership of the NSW Government questioned due to the failure of checks and balances in letting passengers from the Ruby Princess come ashore in Sydney.

Now, Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore leadership is under the spotlight as they have just destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site that dates back to before the Ice Age.

Rio Tinto has prided itself as being a company of the 21st century. According to Rio Tinto’s publication The Way We Work from August 2017, Rio Tinto values Safety, Teamwork, Respect, Integrity and Excellence.

This document outlines an inspiring set of values and culture at Rio Tinto, including how “the environment is an essential part of our care for the future generations”. One would not expect to see this in a mining company.

How Rio Tinto “recognise and respect diverse cultures, communities and points of view”. Where were the Traditional Owners’ recognition and respect?

How Rio Tinto are “aware of our assumptions and biases and are prepared to challenge them”. Why didn’t Rio Tinto challenge their thinking?

Why weren’t Rio Tinto’s values and culture called into play when developing their mining plan around Juukan Gorge?

Even though Rio Tinto goes on to say, “We support the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and respect those rights where we operate and are committed to operating consistently with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights”. Why have Traditional Owners’ values not been respected?

Is this ‘The Way We Work’ publication just to make Rio Tinto’s standing on corporate sustainability and social licence to operate look good with no substance?

Why didn’t Rio Tinto’s team and management—at any stage—raise the red flag and highlight they would be destroying a significant Aboriginal site?

Why didn’t the company culture say, ‘stop this is wrong’?

History tells us the average mining company has a poor record in protecting the environment and Aboriginal sites.

It’s shameful in this day and age that a government would even approve the destruction of an Aboriginal site of such significance to the world.

Given the decision making and approval in government failed us, this still needs to be explained. However, there was one last hope; that Rio Tinto would live up to the values and culture they aspire to and not destroy such significant sites.

Wayne Bergmann (L). Photo supplied.

Many years ago, I was inspired by the rhetoric, values and culture of Rio Tinto. I was present at a conference attended by First Nations representatives, industry and government in Toronto, Canada when a previous Chief Executive Officer and later Chair of Rio Tinto, Sir Ronald Wilson, delivered an inspirational keynote speech.

He said that Rio Tinto was about having the best human rights standards, the best employment standards, and the best environmental standards in the world, so that nations and their Indigenous Peoples will choose Rio Tinto to operate in their backyard. So nations and their Indigenous Peoples will choose Rio Tinto because of the high standards of integrity in which they operate when extracting and developing natural resources.

In spite of this rhetoric and so-called commitment to these important values, it was revealed last Sunday that Rio Tinto had carried out drill and blast activities that had significantly damaged hugely important culture sites.

These sites dated as far back as 46,000 years in the form of two ancient rock shelters. The damage has caused a huge amount of pain and shock to the Traditional Owners as they are sacred sites.

These sacred sites are not only important to Traditional Owners, but also the world. It provided a window into human occupation in Australia before the Ice Age.

When you consider that sacred sites of such importance were damaged and lost, the cost cannot be quantified—culturally or financially.

In context, the iconic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was just 850-years-old—45,150 years younger. Notre Dame’s destruction evoked sympathy and a feeling of loss throughout the world. A compassionate and financial commitment was made to rebuild the cathedral at a cost of many billions of dollars because it was so important to the history of the human race.

These rock shelters were at least 46,000 years older, how are they going to be repaired? How could a company’s culture not raise the red flag?

Dr Peter Veth, a renowned expert and world leader in ancient rock art, said the archaeological and anthropological worlds are shocked by the blasting of ancient 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal rock shelters. These sites constituted invaluable evidence of the incredible preservation of human occupation and how Aboriginal people lived and adapted to the environment over thousands of years.

I don’t understand how this could happen given Rio Tinto’s mantra of ‘The Way We Work’. Rio Tinto has chosen to defend its position by saying they have a legal right to damage these rock shelters, which were just metres from the blast site.

What hard questions did the Rio Tinto teams ask themselves about their values, and what they stood for as a company that prides itself on its carefully nurtured public profile?

It appears generating revenue was more important than anything else and that these sacred sites were an impediment that had to be dealt with.

Is it wilful blindness or just ignorance, disregarding the value and significance of those sacred sites to the Traditional Owners and the world?

A law that allows the powerful to destroy sites of significance, is not a just law. A legal right to destroy a 46,000-year-old site cannot be justified in any modern society.

Rio Tinto has expressed a degree of remorse for what they did. But the remorse quickly dissipated as Rio Tinto vigorously defended and justified their decision to damage these sacred sites because they had legal approval.

If the Rio Tinto leadership had been true to the values and culture contained in ‘The Way We Work’, surely they would have reasoned that damaging a 46,000-year-old sacred site was not worth the cost to their reputation? Or not worth the pain and suffering they have inflicted on the PKKP Traditional Owners, on whose land they generate massive profits and dividends for Rio Tinto and their shareholders.

There can be no debate that the actions of Rio Tinto in this instance were not consistent with the written values and culture the company have published, resulting in acts being committed that have caused damage and hurt that cannot be undone.

Nations and Indigenous Peoples need to consider whether Rio Tinto can be trusted to operate in their backyard.

By Wayne Bergmann

 

Wayne Bergmann is CEO of KRED Enterprises Charitable Trust, former CEO of Kimberley Land Council who negotiated the Argyle Diamond co-existence agreement with Rio Tinto, and part-owner of National Indigenous Times.