Mining watchdog groups and human rights activists from around the world confronted Rio Tinto officials at the mining giant’s annual general shareholder meeting in London Thursday, questioning the company about proposed and in-the-works projects that they said could cause serious environmental and human rights violations if allowed to go forward.
Photo by Kari Lydersen
They brought up several controversial Rio Tinto projects, including the massive in-the-works Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in Mongolia, the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska, and in-the-works mines in Arizona and Michigan. But much to the disappointment of some anti-mining activists, no mention was made of two of Rio Tinto's most infamous operations — the Grasberg mine in West Papua, Indonesia and the Panguna mine in Papua New Guinea.
Much of the shareholders’ focus at the meeting was on the recent losses and setbacks suffered by the company last year. Following a year of low commodity prices and labor unrest, Rio Tinto had to write down assets including $3 billion in a bad coal deal in Mozambique and $11 billion in its aluminum sector — setbacks that led to the resignation of former chief executive Tom Albanese. While Panguna and Grasberg didn’t figure into Rio Tinto’s 2012 reports, company critics say those mines are relevant to the company’s future.
Rio Tinto’s own documents note that it expects the Grasberg mine, in which it owns a 40 percent stake, to be an important asset in the future, and there’s talk of reopening the Panguna mine that’s been closed since 1989.That being the case, critics say, Rio Tinto should address the devastating environmental pollution caused by the ongoing mining in West Papua and past mining in Papua New Guinea; plus do more to address past human rights abuses in both locations.
Exiled Indigenous activist Benny Wenda, who protested outside the shareholder meeting holding a banner saying “Free West Papua,” says West Papuans were too terrified to speak out against the Grasberg mine. “If you are against the company you will be attacked,” he says. “The moment you protest they will say you are a separatist. Indonesia has its intelligence there, and around the world. The killing is still going on. Indonesia doesn’t care about my people, they care about the mine.”
Wenda, 37, says he was imprisoned by the Indonesian government because of his involvement in the West Papuan separatist movement. He says he survived three assassination attempts in prison before escaping to England. “Our struggle is not only about political independence but about our very survival,” he says. “(The mine) is destroying our land, our forest, our mountains, our way of life … This is genocide for our people, that’s the way I see it.”
Indonesia colonized West Papua — half of the landmass that also contains independent Papua New Guinea — in 1963. Mineral and fossil fuel wealth was considered a major reason for colonization.
Photo by Simon Pearson
The Grasberg mine, which opened in the 1960s, holds the world’s largest gold reserves and is among the world’s largest copper deposits. The mine is majority-owned by a subsidiary of New Orleans-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold. Rio Tinto has a non-managerial share in the company. It gets 40 percent of profits above a certain level through 2021, and 40 percent of all profits after that.
The mine was already in operation when Wenda was a child. But he remembers hearing stories from elders about how the river used to be crystal clear and full of fish. Now, he says, in some places it is “like a desert” and in others it is “like coffee.” The sago trees that locals rely on for food have also been wiped out because of the mining, he says. Wenda explained that Indigenous people, including his own tribe, live in the craggy mountains much of which was literally destroyed by the open pit mine. A separate tribe, he said, lives in the lowlands where the river is heavily polluted by the toxic tailings – leftovers from ore processing that are stored in pits and ponds.
In 2005, the New York Times detailed massive environmental contamination caused by the mine, and traced the millions of dollars of kickbacks the Indonesian military and police received for allegedly helping mine owners skirt US and Indonesian laws and cover up human rights and labor abuses. The Times noted that the mine owners apparently ignored a 2002 study paid for by FreePort and Rio Tinto that found the mining had made rivers and wetlands “unsuitable for aquatic life.”
Grasberg is now being transitioned to a wholly underground operation, according to Rio Tinto’s documents. By 2017 the underground mine will be in operation using a method called “block cave mining,” wherein a tunnel is dug below an ore body and then the body is blasted so that it collapses into the space below.
Theoretically, such underground mining has much less impact on the surface than open pit mining. But critics note that the method is relatively rare and is known to cause the surface land to sink or collapse since such huge volumes of rock are removed underground without any bolstering by pillars. The San Carlos Apache tribe in southeastern Arizona is fighting a block cave copper mine proposed by Rio Tinto, which they say would destroy landmarks sacred to the Apache.
Even if the mining is done underground, the tailings from processing ore will still have to be disposed of above ground, says Andrew Hickman, a London-based campaigner who focuses on Indonesia with the NGO Down to Earth. Contamination from the tailings is the major environmental issue currently facing the area, he said, and Rio Tinto should take responsibility for it.
“Whenever Grasberg is mentioned they say they are not managing it,” Hickman said. “It’s a non-argument. If there’s a financial interest for Rio Tinto, they should not be able to get off the hook.”
As in West Papua, Rio Tinto’s operations on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea have long been inextricably tied up with brutal political conflict. Bougainville has been the site of constant power struggles and bloody battles because of its rich deposits of copper, gold, and other metals. The island has an autonomous government, and a vote for its independence is scheduled to take place between 2015 and 2020.
The Panguna copper mine opened in 1972. It caused massive pollution and native local workers were described as toiling in slavery-like conditions. Widespread local opposition was violently quashed by the Papua New Guinean military, allegedly with equipment subsidized by Rio Tinto through its subsidiary Bougainville Copper.
The copper mine is often blamed for playing a significant role in starting and fueling the civil war that wracked Bougainville in the 1990s, ultimately claiming at least 15,000 lives. The mine was forced to close in 1989 amid the conflict, leaving massive copper deposits in the ground. A study released this year by Rio Tinto found that there are still at least five million tons of copper and 19 million ounces of gold in Panguna, worth $41 billion and $32 billion respectively.
Rio Tinto is currently facing a lawsuit in US federal court under the Alien Tort Claims Act, accusing the company of genocide in Bougainville in the 1980s and 1990s.
The lawsuit had been considered a potentially powerful way to keep the issue in the public eye and hold Rio Tinto accountable. But a US Supreme Court decision on April 17 means the lawsuit will most likely become irrelevant. In the case of Kiobel versus Royal Dutch Petroleum, the court ruled that the Alien Tort Claims Act should not cover events that play out entirely overseas. The 1789 law was meant to cover acts of piracy on the high seas and attacks on foreign diplomats within the US, but not alleged crimes by corporations, the Supreme Court decided. Hence the decision is expected to greatly curtail the law’s use by human rights groups to target corporate behavior in developing countries.
Asked about the suit, a Rio Tinto spokesman said: “Bougainville Copper’s priority was to look after its employees and it did not participate in any conflict … we regard the allegations to be without foundation. We continue to vigorously defend ourselves against these claims and have petitioned the US Supreme Court to review the case.”
Photo by Flickr user madlemurs
Activists have often cited the Bougainville as the first place in the world where an indigenous people forced an environmentally destructive mine to shut down.
But that could change.
At its April 8 annual meeting, Bougainville Copper, which has had no real operations since the mine closure, announced that it plans to reopen the mine. “Bougainville Copper Ltd. has a long-term vision to return to mining and exploration, which Rio Tinto supports, subject to the support of landowners, community and the government,” the Rio Tinto spokesman said.
Bougainville’s autonomous government under president John Momis and many locals support the mine’s reopening – the government has said polls place popular support above 90 percent. A new mining law grants Bougainville landowners significant rights over subsurface minerals, including a share of profits and the right to block mining. This law, considered fairly unique worldwide, is likely partly behind the significant support for the mine re-opening in the impoverished region.
However, several trade unions, environmental groups, and mining watchdogs in Australia and New Zealand are strongly opposed to the mine restarting, in part because of Rio Tinto’s record elsewhere and the ripple effects reopening the enormous mine could have on the industry. Local Bougainville independence leaders also charge that the push to reopen the mine quickly are driven by foreign interests. They want any decision on the mine to wait until there is a vote on Bougainville’s independence.
The possibility of the mine reopening has brought renewed attention to the Alien Tort case. Rio Tinto’s critics say that whatever the jurisdictional reach of US law, it does not change Rio Tinto’s history in Bougainville. On the listserve Papua New Guinea Minewatch, they charge that people with past connections to the mine and its sordid history have undue influence in the current dialogue over reopening. They point to the evidence, including an affidavit signed by Michael Somare, the prime minister of Papua New Guinea at the time. Somare stated that Rio Tinto “controlled” the government during the mining era, and that Rio Tinto subsidiary BCL (Bougainville Copper Ltd.) “was directly involved in the military operations on Bougainville, and it played an active part. It supplied helicopters, which were used as gunships, the pilots, troop transportation, fuel, and troop barracks. It knew bloodshed was likely to occur because it instructed the government of PNG to reopen the mine 'by whatever means necessary'.”
At the shareholder meeting, Rio Tinto officials, including chairman Jan du Plessis and CEO Sam Walsh, stressed the company’s commitment to socially responsible practices including ensuring that local communities, particularly Indigenous people, are consulted about and benefit from Rio Tinto operations.
“We supply the fundamental building blocks to the developing world — creating economic and social benefits for the places where we mine and our host communities,” Walsh said. A video screened at the start of the meeting noted that the company was a founding member of the International Council on Mining and Metals, an industry group focused on social responsibility. It mentioned that Rio Tinto was the first mining company listed on the Dow Jones sustainability index. The spokesman also noted that Rio Tinto is the largest private sector employer of indigenous people in Australia.
Activists who attended the meeting said the company has indeed improved its practices since the Bougainville days, largely because of pressure from the international network of Indigenous, labor, environmental and human rights groups that has coalesced over the years. But they said there was still much it could do better.
Hickman thinks that even as it tries to reopen the Bougainville mine, Rio Tinto should be careful not to forget the lessons learned there. Especially regarding its operations just to the west.
“My guess is the armed conflict around Grasberg will get worse,” he said. “The company didn’t read the writing on the wall in Bougainville in time and things exploded and the mine closed. The shareholder profits were lost, along with the corruption and human rights violations all the other things that happened.”
Meanwhile, Wenda says he will not believe Rio Tinto’s promises as long as it profits from the Grasberg mine.
“In West Papua the forest is our supermarket and the land is our mother,” he says. He accuses the mine of wiping out the local culture by contaminating the water and destroying the forest, the mine is literally wiping out the local culture. “How can human beings in the twenty-first century do this? We are different colors but we are the same. How can one human being do that to another human being?”
This reporting was supported by Fund for Environmental Journalism