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Rio Tinto’s Destruction Of an Aboriginal Heritage Site: Cultural Warfare and ‘Environmental Vandalism’

Rio Tinto – a leading global mining group – has come under intense scrutiny over its destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site. The fact that iron ore is one of Australia’s largest exports makes it a difficult topic, especially considering the commercial value of the site in question. Whilst the Western Australian government gave Rio the legal go-ahead on the site in 2013, the potential for widespread destruction was not taken into consideration.

Investor sentiment and ESG – the key to change?

This event has attracted international attention and specifically, from Rio’s shareholders and investors. For example, Legal & General – one of the 10 biggest shareholders in Rio – has scheduled meetings with the company over this horrific event. This is useful in understanding the shifting importance of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors to investors, as potential purchasers are undertaking a deeper analysis of a company’s commitment to CSR, sustainability, and D&I, for example, before becoming involved with the business. This demonstrates that businesses hold an important place in the community and must focus on far more variables than simply their bottom lines. It will be interesting to see how Rio’s brand fares in the future and how the company will attempt to make amends for its actions.


This isn’t the first time something like this has happened

Worryingly, this is not the first incident like this. For example, the mining company Vale was involved in a dam disaster and Glencore came under fire for its misuse of coal. This begs the question: has cultural destruction become part of the “norm”? Due to the seemingly few consequences arising from previous disasters, is culture worth less than lucrative resources? Should such aggressive extractions continue to be allowed?

Who should be held accountable?

Whilst it is claimed that ‘“no single individual or error”’ was responsible for the destruction of the sacred caves, the disaster surely falls on the shoulders of the leaders and those in charge. Is money worth more than the historical artefacts lost in the blow? Some commentators have branded companies like Rio ‘environmental vandals’, showing the noticeable ‘power imbalance between indigenous peoples and miners’. Indeed, some directors have had pay cuts, but will this really make up for it? A pay cut cannot reverse the destruction of important objects, scriptures, identities. Also, this event highlights the difficult relationship between mining companies and the local communities in which they are operating. Surprisingly, Rio secured agreements with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. However, were honest conversations about the likelihood of things going wrong ever held?

Should blame lie with the lack of regulation and outdated policies governing heritage protection laws? I would claim that this event highlights the need for greater regulation and insight into the activities of mining companies, especially global mining companies, due to the cross-border nature of their pursuits.

For me, watching and reading about this series of events spurned worries and multiple questions. For example, who deserves the right to consent to involvement in historical sites? Whose voices are listened to? Who should be deemed responsible? Due to the legal agreements, it seems that all parties involved had consented to Rio’s involvement with the Aboriginal site. However, I think contracts must push for transparency, honesty, and frank conversations between countries in order to determine the likelihood of potential cultural and historical destruction.


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