Rio Tinto has made many claims about its newfound interest in protecting indigenous rights in Australia, and these claims have been put to the test by one of its subsidiaries.

A report commissioned by this subsidiary, Energy Resources Australia (ERA), highlighted the financial potential of mining the Jabiluka uranium deposit in Australia’s Northern Territory. The deposit could hold reserves of uranium equal to around $1.3bn, making it an attractive investment opportunity, but such efforts have been met with decades of opposition from local people, led by the Mirarr indigenous group.

Rio Tinto responded quickly, ultimately calling for resignations from key decision-makers at the ERA. While Australian mining in general still has a ways to go to repair relations with indigenous groups, Rio Tinto’s siding with the Mirarr people could signify an important shift towards the miner finally aligning itself with indigenous rights over private profits.

“We know we have work to do”

“Many of our operations are on or near land that is significant to indigenous communities,” explains a Rio Tinto spokesperson, when asked about the sustained local opposition to any developments at the Jabiluka deposit. “We recognise the cultural, spiritual and physical connections that Indigenous peoples have with land, water, plants and animals.”

“We know we have work to do to be better partners with indigenous peoples,” continues the spokesperson, who highlighted recent events that have helped push the miner towards a more considerate approach regarding local communities. “There have been defining moments, such as Juukan Gorge, that have compelled us to evolve our approach. We are determined to strengthen our approach to engagement with Indigenous peoples in every country where we work.”

The miner also explained that it remains committed to learning and moving forward in new ways, always side by side, with the communities that host it.

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“We reiterate our commitment to respect internationally recognised human rights aligned with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and to implement core international standards, including the UNGPs.”

Of course, it’s much easier to talk about big changes than it is to make them. But to Rio Tinto’s credit, its move to remove the chair of ERA was a swift and decisive action that made clear where the miner stands on indigenous issues, and is a stark, and welcome, contrast to its actions during the Juukan Gorge crisis.

“We called for the resignation of the chairman, not executives, and subsequently welcomed an announcement from ERA on board renewal,” explains the spokesperson.

“Rio Tinto has requested the resignation of ERA chairman Peter Mansell to allow for board renewal and introduce new perspectives to address the material cost and schedule overruns on the critical Ranger rehabilitation project in Australia’s Northern Territory.”

Rehabilitating the Ranger mine

Rio Tinto’s sudden shift towards prioritising indigenous issues also makes sense within the context of its wider operations. ERA, and by extension Rio Tinto, has been closely involved in the rehabilitation of the famous Ranger uranium mine in the Northern Territory, which ceased production at the end of 2020 after 35 years.

The mine produced 1,574 tonnes of uranium in its final year of production, and was among the top ten uranium producers for much of its lifetime. With Rio Tinto now more interested in environmental rehabilitation than expanding mines and driving profits, it is little surprise that it is pushing ERA away from more financially lucrative initiatives.

“Our utmost priority and commitment is to the rehabilitation of the Ranger Project Area in a way that is consistent with the wishes of the Mirarr People,” says Rio Tinto Australia chief executive Kellie Parker.

“However, given our recent dealings with the IBC and the release of the Grant Thornton valuation report, we do not believe that can be achieved without renewal within ERA’s board.”

This shift in priorities has highlighted how finance, profit, extractives and resources, plus human and indigenous rights can always, to an extent, be in conflict. This conflict can raise difficult questions for companies such as Rio Tinto, that are often left with the impossible task of balancing a range of apparently exclusive interests.

“Our strategy, objectives and values guide our approach to sustainability,” says a Rio Tinto spokesperson. “Decarbonisation is an urgent priority for us and the world. Our strategy sets a new direction for us to decarbonise our assets and our products and grow by investing in those materials that are essential to a low-carbon future.”

To deliver the strategy, Rio Tinto said it is focused on four key objectives, including its drive for impeccable environmental, social and governance credentials and maintaining its social licence to operate.

“We must ensure all our stakeholders benefit from our success,” says the spokesperson. “To do this, our business priorities and performance must align with society’s expectations, which are constantly evolving.

“Robust and trusting relationships with our stakeholders are essential to secure a strong future for our business while ensuring we make meaningful contributions to our host communities and help address the world’s most urgent challenges.”

Sustainability and social license

The uncomfortable reality is that tomorrow’s sustainability drive will require many minerals and metals for electric vehicles or the energy transition, and there is likely to be ever-increasing demand for these commodities, which runs against indigenous and human rights interests.

Rio Tinto noted that it supports strengthening safeguards for cultural heritage at both state and commonwealth legislative levels, including the reform process currently underway to ensure an incident like the destruction of rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia never happens again.

“These reforms must ensure that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are placed at the centre of decision-making on matters relating to protection of their cultural heritage,” says the spokesperson.

“We continue to work with indigenous peoples and communities to ensure we better understand their priorities and concerns, minimise our impacts, and responsibly manage Indigenous cultural heritage within our operations.”

While it is easy to be cynical regarding the sincerity of comments such as these, Rio Tinto has now demonstrated a willingness to engage with indigenous interests ahead of financial motives, and deserves some credit. Parker also noted that, moving forward, co-ordination between these apparently disparate goals would be of benefit to both Rio Tinto in particular, and Australian mining as a whole.

”We thank Peter Mansell, Paul Dowd and Shane Charles for their contribution to ERA and wish them well for the future,” says Parker. “We are committed to working with ERA to facilitate this board renewal process and urgently develop a workable plan to fund the increased rehabilitation costs.

“We restate our belief that the successful rehabilitation of the Ranger Project Area, which is of critical importance to the Mirarr People, Rio Tinto and ERA, can be achieved in a way that is consistent with the Mirarr People’s wishes. This remains our utmost priority and commitment.”

Rio Tinto’s responses certainly demonstrate contrition over what has taken place, and there has been no fear nor lack of reprisals when it came to the fate of the ERA board.

That, combined with mass media coverage would hint there’s less and less space for extractives firms, RT included, to make mistakes regarding free, prior and informed consent for Indigenous rights in Australia.

Obviously, only time will tell, but the hope will be for more equitable mining that balances everyone’s needs within the overall picture of tomorrow’s resource requirements.