Behind closed doors at Rio Tinto

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© Liam Barrington-Bush

I can’t say I attend mining company annual general meetings (AGMs) because I enjoy them. They are a kind of liturgy in the Temple of Money, where the worshippers make their obeisance to the Golden Calf. I can’t share in their devotion.

But they are also an opportunity to cry out against the multiple injustices perpetrated by enormous corporations against communities, workers, ecosystems and our common future.

Jan du Plessis, Chair of Rio Tinto, has perfected the art of keeping order by allowing everyone to have their say. He is always polite, says that he values people’s contributions and will look into their concerns. He offers dialogue, respect...

Meanwhile, Sam Walsh fits the mould of the Techno-CEO, whose role at AGMs appears to be to attempt to bore people into a state of catatonia.

Then there are those shareholders who appear to be able to listen to complaint after complaint from communities and workers and still raise questions about how much money they ought to be making, seemingly unmoved by the human suffering they have just heard about.

This year, we heard two statements from the Board that particularly caught my ear. One was Sam Walsh’s statement that the transfer of the company’s uranium operations to its diamonds division was ‘arbitrary’.

The other was Jan du Plessis’ admission that our old friend Roger Moody, fighter against Rio Tinto for over three decades, had reached ‘the limit of [the company’s] knowledge’ about Rio Tinto’s dealings with Ivanhoe over the Monywa mine in Burma.

In both cases, I felt refreshed by their frankness, but disturbed by its implications.

As the great Native American folk singer and rock star Buffy Ste-Marie used to sing, ‘Uranium burns a hole in forever – it just gets out of control.’

You’d have thought that digging up a mineral whose toxic radioactive legacy will remain dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years might warrant decisions which are not simply ‘arbitrary’.

Also, the publication by Amnesty International in February of a weighty report about human rights violations around the Monywa mine, and the public suggestion that Rio Tinto may have been implicated in violation of sanctions against Burma, might have encouraged senior management to extend their own knowledge of the subject so that it rivalled that of our friend Roger – if such a thing is possible.

But the other issues raised by our friends from around the world were just as important.

Indigenous Innu representatives from Quebec accused the company of violating Innu land rights and announced that they want the company to pay the rent on Innu land taken without Innu consent for iron ore mining. Roger Featherstone of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition accused the company of violating Apache Indigenous rights in the US at its Resolution Copper project, planned for construction on an Apache sacred site.

Concern was expressed about the company’s continuing coal production, which it shows no intention of ending, despite admitting the damaging impacts of coal use on the climate.

The scandal of worker deaths was raised repeatedly in connection with the company’s operations in Madagascar, South Africa and West Papua.

Indeed, the whole way Rio Tinto treats its workers was the subject of the first intervention in the AGM’s Q and A session, when Kemal Ozkan of global mining union IndustriALL stood up, accompanied by representatives of affiliated unions from Australia, Canada, France, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Namibia, the Netherlands, South Africa, Britain and the United States, and denounced the company for what he said was its disrespect and arrogance towards its workers.

Little surprises me any more about Rio Tinto’s attitude to the workers and communities affected by its operations. But this year’s AGM was actually a sign of hope.

Rarely have we had so many delegates, from so many places, drawn together by their common outrage at the behaviour of one company, connecting directly with one another and sharing their stories, strengthening one another with the power of solidarity, the power of knowing none of us is alone in this struggle.

Company AGMs are an important moment to raise awareness. But it is through actions on the ground, by workers and affected communities, that companies such as Rio Tinto are compelled to change their behaviour.

When communities have the chance to connect directly with each other, and when alliances can be forged between them and mine workers, you never know what impact they could have. And last week’s AGM was a step forward in making those connections.

There is a full report on the AGM here, as well as a webcast.

Richard Solly is Co-ordinator of the London Mining Network.


Rio Tinto and the Oyu Tolgoi mine


In March 2013, New Internationalist magazine carried an article on mining in Mongolia, including information about the Oyu Tolgoi project – but it did not mention that activity at the mine is controlled and operated by British-based mining multinational Rio Tinto, which has a history of involvement in projects associated with environmental destruction and abuse of workers’ rights, indigenous peoples’ rights and human rights in general. 

Oyu Tolgoi
Oyu Tolgoi London Mining Network

London Mining Network has been working with Mongolian civil society organization Oyu Tolgoi Watch and other groups in Europe and North America to try to stop Rio Tinto and its financial backers from trampling on the rights of the communities affected by its operations in Mongolia. The company’s approach to the traditional herders who are affected by their operations in Mongolia has been to deny that they are indigenous communities, as that would mean they have internationally recognized rights to free, prior informed consent.

The herders are now engaged in a difficult process of seeking help from the World Bank’s Compliance Adviser Ombudsman with ‘mediation’, and an independent panel to be established to examine their case. The herders filed an earlier complaint about inadequate relocation and compensation which you can be read at the Ombudsman’s website.

At the London Mining Network in 2012, we produced a review of Rio Tinto’s wholly inadequate Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for the Oyu Tolgoi project developed it into a Key Recommendations report.

Rio Tinto’s Mongolian subsidiary Turquoise Hill Resources has been seeking massive loans to develop the mine. The big ‘sell’ on lending to a leading mining multinational such as Rio Tinto is that they will operate responsibly and sustainably. The World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) have been operating in Mongolia since 2006, and with Turquoise Hill since 2009. Both banks have approved huge loans to Oyu Tolgoi despite all the controversy over the mine’s inadequate Environmental and Social Impact Assessment.

London Mining Network and others tried to persuade IFC and EBRD not to fund the project. As a result, the US representative on the World Bank’s Board of Directors abstained, and expressed a number of concerns. Unfortunately, both banks decided to back the project, and we are now trying to make sure that they put strict conditions on their loans.

Sukhgerel Dugersuren, the Director of Oyu Tolgoi Watch, will be in London in mid-April 2013 to attend Rio Tinto’s Annual General Meeting and tell shareholders about the real impacts of its activities in Mongolia. You can hear Sukhgerel speak at the ‘Stories of Resistance’ event at Amnesty International UK on Monday 15 April. There will also be a demonstration outside the Rio Tinto AGM in London on Thursday 18 April, from 10 until 11am.

You can read a lot more about the Oyu Tolgoi project on the London Mining Network website.

The demonstration at the Rio Tinto AGM will be at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Broad Sanctuary, Westminster, London SW1P 3EE.

Frankglenstrata: the birth of a mining monster?


Glencore’s takeover of Xstrata will make a monster company. Photo: Hasselback, under a CC License.

On Tuesday 20 November, mining and trading transnational corporation Glencore succeeded in its takeover bid for Xstrata, another massive mining company.

But, why should we care?

As we at the London Mining Network pointed out in our February 2012 report, UK-listed mining companies and the case for stricter regulation, even London’s conservative newspaper The Times took a dim view of Glencore when it floated on the London Stock Exchange in May 2011. Business editor Ian King damned Glencore as: ‘a business with dubious morals. It trades grain amid food riots and has been accused of profiteering and environmental offences in numerous poor and war-torn countries.’ He noted that few traditional City of London institutions would purchase the company’s shares.i

The activities of Glencore and its subsidiaries in Bolivia, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Peru, the US and Zambia have been criticized for association with paramilitary land-grabbing and military repression of protest,  air and water pollution, avoiding taxes, destroying agricultural livelihoods and an appalling worker safety record.

But Xstrata’s record is nothing to be proud of either. It has been involved in violent conflict in Peru and the Philippines. It is accused of toxic spills in Peru and of benefiting from unjust removals of agricultural communities in Colombia. Xstrata is also a major shareholder in Lonmin, which hit the headlines in August for the killing of striking workers at its Marikana platinum mine in South Africa.

Then there are the climate impacts of both companies’ massive investment in coal.

Glencore and Xstrata are each already huge companies in their own right. Each is already among the top 10 mining companies in the world by market capitalization. The combined company will rival Rio Tinto as the third largest in the world (after BHP Billiton and Vale).

They are both listed on the London Stock Exchange, the world’s premier market for mining companies, where many institutional investors automatically buy shares in both of them because of their position among the top 100 companies listed there. But they are both headquartered in Switzerland, where they can pay less tax than in Britain while escaping the level of activist scrutiny that other large London-listed mining companies (Anglo American, BHP Billiton, Bumi, Rio Tinto, Vedanta) undergo.

Together, they will combine metals production and metals trading, exerting control all along the mining value chain (particularly in the production and trading of thermal coal). At a time when there are concerns that banks have become too big to fail, mergers within the mining industry are creating beasts of companies who have enough market muscle to exert monopolistic tendencies. In May this year, Glencore’s Chief Executive Ivan Glasenberg talked about how the mining industry can counter growing attempts by developing countries to get a better share of mining tax revenue. How much better a position will the new Glenstrata be in to get its own way?

And it will be Glasenberg in charge of the combined company – the same Glasenberg who, when asked in April 2011 if the company would improve its behaviour after listing on the London Stock Exchange, replied, ‘We are not going to change the way we operate… Being public will have absolutely no effect on the business.’ii

The combined company’s approach to human rights, community rights, worker rights, Indigenous rights, environmental pollution and taxation may be a combination of the lowest standards applied in each company – a real Frankenstein’s monster of a company, but with a less developed conscience.

Richard Solly is the co-ordinator of the London Mining Network. Find out more at their website or @londonmining on Twitter.

i The Times, 20 May 2011
ii Financial Times, 15 April 2011

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