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Heavy machinery operates in the pit at Rio Tinto Group’s West Angelas iron ore mine in Pilbara, Australia, on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012. Rio Tinto Group, the world’s second-biggest iron ore exporter, will spend $518 million on the first driverless long-distance trains to haul the commodity from its Western Australia mines to ports, boosting efficiency. Photographer: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sensemaker, 13 October 2020

Sensemaker, 13 October 2020

Heavy machinery operates in the pit at Rio Tinto Group’s West Angelas iron ore mine in Pilbara, Australia, on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012. Rio Tinto Group, the world’s second-biggest iron ore exporter, will spend $518 million on the first driverless long-distance trains to haul the commodity from its Western Australia mines to ports, boosting efficiency. Photographer: Ian Waldie/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The UK government ignored its own scientists’ advice three weeks ago to impose a “circuit breaker” lockdown to limit the impact of a second wave of Covid infection.
  • Johnson & Johnson halted its Covid vaccine trial because a participant fell ill.
  • Kamala Harris said the rush to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the US Supreme Court was part of a bid to “take away healthcare from millions… during a deadly pandemic”.

Blowing up history. Last month the CEO of Rio Tinto was forced to resign because of the backlash against the company’s destruction of an ancient Aboriginal site near one of its mines. Rio might have hoped the resignation would draw a line under the affair. In fact the company’s reckoning with history may just be getting started.

This is the second of two Sensemaker Specials based on the Tortoise Responsibility 100 Index, which ranks the FTSE 100 by how closely their actions match their words on a range of social and environmental criteria. The latest update of the Index goes live on Thursday at our Responsible Business Summit.

Last week’s special looked at methane and the oil industry. This week’s looks at mining and indigenous peoples, through the lens of a story that turned a $135 million iron ore deposit into an international scandal.

Rio blew up two ancient rock shelters in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge in May in the full knowledge that they bore traces of 46,000 years of human habitation. Unesco officials likened the episode to the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, and Jean-Sébastien Jacques was forced out to try to limit the damage to the company. Its stock price has stabilised but its efforts to rebuild trust among the people whose land it mines are stumbling.

We looked more closely at those efforts and found that:

  • while Rio says it’s determined to make sure this sort of destruction “never occurs again”, at least 124 archaeological sites may still be at risk across Western Australia’s Pilbara region;
  • indigenous inhabitants of the Pilbara, including the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people whose ancestors lived at the site, are bound by a series of 10 agreements signed with Rio since the early 2000s which they cannot appeal and whose terms they can’t discuss;
  • three Rio workers who refused to clear land of trees and rocks before explosives were planted at the Juukan Gorge site have since been sacked or moved to other mines, according to a colleague.

Rio won legal clearance to destroy the Juukan Gorge site in 2013 but admits it failed to notify local people that three of four possible ways to access nearby deposits would have left the site intact. Despite this the company claims to engage with the communities where it works “regularly, in good faith, and in ways that are transparent, inclusive, and culturally appropriate”.

That engagement seems to have broken down. “What happened at Juukan Gorge is not a one-off,” says Kathryn Przywolnik, archaeologist and heritage manager at the Wintawari Guruma Aboriginal Corporation, which represents the interests of the indigenous Eastern Guruma people. “Aboriginal groups are all saying the same thing – we speak, and no one listens.”

Their deals with Rio effectively gave the company “total domain over their country,” says Przywolnik’s colleague Aaron Rayner, native title manager at the WGAC. “The only thing we can do is appeal to Rio’s better nature and their discretion by saying ‘Please don’t blow up that site’. Sometimes they say ‘OK’ and sometimes they say there’s just too much money in that ground.”

Rio Tinto didn’t respond when approached for comment.

Mining is the Pilbara region’s backbone, worth $48.9 billion a year and supporting 45 per cent of local jobs. Rio employs almost one in five of the region’s workers in 16 mines, four ports, four power plants and along 1700km of railways. Many of its workers live in subsidised housing.

Western Australia produces more than a third of the world’s iron ore, and mining accounts for about 15 per cent of Australian GDP. That may once have let its miners pay only lip service to the rights and sensibilities of indigenous peoples, but no longer.

Australia’s biggest pension fund said the destruction of a site that an internal Rio’s report described as of the highest archaeological significance was “totally unacceptable”. Warren Entsch, Queensland MP and chair of a parliamentary inquiry into the affair, said the company’s failure to grasp the importance of the site “beggared belief”.

He told us: “I am gobsmacked by the way Rio has treated these people. What has been done here is absolute vandalism and they deserve to be condemned for it.”

In the latest update of the Responsibility 100 Index Rio Tinto ranks 80th out of 100. It set itself 12 sustainability targets – but none related to community engagement.

The other FTSE 100 mining firms are BHP, ranked 37th; Anglo American plc, ranked 46th; Fresnillo, ranked 76th; Antofagasta, 89th; Polymetal International, ranked 87th; Glencore, ranked 88th; and Evraz, ranked 97th.

One reason most mining companies sit in the bottom half of the index is that it heavily weights climate-related criteria – especially CO2 emissions from operations – and mining is intrinsically carbon-intensive. But a mining firm can climb up the index by outperforming the average on broader measures of sustainability and good governance. As Alexandra Mousavizadeh, director of Tortoise Intelligence, puts it: “There’s a path to becoming a good miner.”

Also in the app today… Listen to part 2 of Happy, our podcast on one elephant’s legal bid for freedom. Today Samantha Weinberg investigates how Happy showed humans she knew who she was. Sign up for today’s lunchtime open news meeting and tomorrow’s ThinkIn on Nicola Sturgeon: will she lead Scotland to independence?

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

The case for tax
Spare a thought for Rishi Sunak, the UK chancellor who’s said his party “will always balance the books”. A phalanx of forecasters is now saying: fat chance. With borrowing nearly £300 billion higher at the end of this year than was predicted in March, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says Sunak or his successors will have to raise taxes by £40 billion by 2024-25 just to prevent debt spiralling out of control. For Tories, that will hurt, but a return to austerity is already out of the question if they want to keep the “red wall” blue, and they haven’t felt the full economic impact of Covid or Brexit yet. Backbenchers will ask how the economy can recover with an increased tax burden. Will ministers have the courage to point out they can’t keep any of their spending promises without it?

New things technology, science, engineering

Facebook bans Holocaust denial
Mark Zuckerberg is banning Facebook content that denies or distorts the Holocaust. He says he’s “struggled with the tension between standing for free expression and the harm caused by minimizing or denying the horror of the Holocaust”. Indeed, only two years ago he said Facebook shouldn’t censor deniers just because he disagreed with them. What changed his mind? Recent research showing that nearly a quarter of Americans aged 18-39 believe the Holocaust was a myth, exaggerated or weren’t sure whether it happened.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Sun so cheap
Solar power is now the cheapest energy in history, according to the International Energy Agency. As a result the IEA is forecasting 43 per cent more new solar capacity worldwide by 2040 than it was two years ago, and is talking up a solar-based path to 1.5 degrees of warming – as opposed to 2 degrees or more. Carbon Brief, typically, has all the details, but the key point is that the IEA, which traditionally underestimated uptake of solar power, now sees a plausible path to global net zero carbon emissions by 2050 as long as we take full advantage of it. Credit where it’s due: solar panels have plummeted in price largely because of China’s decision ten years ago to mass-produce them.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Sniff that carrier
First Helsinki, now Moscow: handlers hope to use human urine samples to train dogs to sniff out Covid carriers at airports. And not just any dogs. At Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport, an erstwhile hell-hole transformed for the 2018 World Cup, they plan to use Shalaikas, a cross-breed between Arctic sheep dogs and Turkmen jackals created in the 1970s to detect opium carried by smugglers from Afghanistan. Shalaikas have “the unique skill of being able to pick up smells prevalent in both heavy warm air and light cold air,” Yelena Batayeva of Aeroflot’s dog training service tells the Moscow Times. As with Russia’s Covid vaccine, we shall see.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Nigerian police reform
Protests against police brutality in Nigeria have led to the deaths of a police officer and a civilian, and a promise from President Buhari that the country’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) will be broken up. The deaths were reported in Lagos, where police used live rounds on protesters on Monday, the sixth day of demonstrations prompted by a video of SARS officers dragging two men out of a hotel in the former capital and shooting one of them. An online movement to abolish SARS has been trending internationally with help from Marcus Rashford, the footballer, and the actor John Boyega. In principle the unit has already been disbanded but its demise has been announced before – four times in the past four years.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Ellen Halliday

Giles Whittell