“Your mining is not unproblematic.” That understatement nicely summed up the Rio Tinto Annual General Meeting held yesterday morning in London. But by the time a representative from the London Mining Network had uttered it near the end of the question period, Rio Tinto Chairman Jan du Plessis appeared to have stopped listening.
Up to that point it had been a lively and contentious meeting. Shareholders were miffed about the company’s blunders in Mozambique and the Alcan write off and confused by the executive compensation scheme. Some wanted to know why Tom Albanese wasn’t there to answer for the company’s troubles in 2012, when he was still CEO; another said it was time to stop scapegoating Albanese, and hold the board accountable: “every few years,” he said, we have “a resounding chaotic blunder…What has the board done?”
They were not the only ones to talk about blunders and bad decisions that put the company at risk. Activists, environmentalists and indigenous leaders who attended the meeting testified to the destructive effects of Rio Tinto’s large-scale industrial mining operations on the land, local communities, and traditional ways of life. These speakers all said they and the groups they represent would continue to oppose the company. In fact, their opposition is only growing; a couple even suggested that Rio Tinto could start cutting costs (a big priority for the mining giant right now) by abandoning or divesting from places where mining operations are not welcome. The message to shareholders was clear: protests, lawsuits and continued local opposition will put projects at risk, disrupt schedules and cost money.
Did the board get the message? Not likely. When an Alaskan Yupik elder spoke in opposition to the Pebble Mine project and urged the company to divest, Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh thanked him for his “sincerity” and both du Plessis and Walsh complimented the elder on how “articulate” he was. It was a patronizing gesture, a pat on the head, not serious engagement. There were some further comments shouted from the audience but du Plessis shut the discussion down and moved to the next question.
Du Plessis repeated a talking point about how much he respects those who had to travel long distances to attend the meeting, but (as I saw it) this was an effort to recover from a stumble. Only minutes earlier he had impatiently dismissed a question about the Eagle Mine – citing “shoddy environmental protections,” poor design work, “fraudulently issued permits,” and the fact that the mine desecrates ground sacred to the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwe — as “not particularly new.” He was having none of it.
There was lots of talk at the meeting about respect, and I’m afraid “respect” is becoming a word corporate boards use to deflect criticism and politely dismiss human rights, environmental and ethical issues. (Whether this is the unfortunate rhetorical fallout of the Ruggie Protect-Respect-Remedy human rights framework is a question for another day.)
For example, when asked what Rio Tinto has done to improve the lot of miners in South Africa, du Plessis responded that the company has developed “very healthy, respectful relationships not just with employees but with the community” in its South African operations. But what sorts of real commitments do those relationships entail? While the company is “not anti-union” –Walsh rejected that characterization — it nevertheless wants a free hand to “maintain direct contact with all our employees” for the sake of safety, efficiency, and (Walsh iced the cake with this) “value.”
One participant said that he couldn’t see how Rio Tinto reconciled its “corporate rhetoric” with its “actions on the ground.” At Oak Flat in Arizona, he went on to explain, Rio Tinto is trying to gain control of public lands sacred to the Apache. The reply was (again): “we will be respectful.” The company would like to “open up direct dialogue” on the Oak Flat project; the trouble is, dialogue can only be direct and truly respectful if the other party actually has an opportunity to be heard and – this is important — heeded.
Dialogue, community engagement, respect, responsibility – all these were floated at the meeting as remedies to the many problems communities face when Rio Tinto moves in. But what doesn’t get taken into account is that the company and these communities are not on equal footing. Nowhere near it. Rio Tinto has enormous influence and power, billions to invest, and – it should not be forgotten – shareholders who want a return on their investment.
So, during the question period, a woman representing Mongolian herders who will be displaced and deprived of water by Rio Tinto’s Oyu Tolgoi project spoke eloquently about a looming “catastrophe.” She had a soft voice that trembled a little as she spoke. Walsh listened, thanked her for traveling all that way to speak, and then replied that in Mongolia (as in Michigan and elsewhere) the company has “developed a participatory environmental water monitoring program.” If you see something, say something, I guess.
Never mind that she had just finished telling him about the threat of toxic leaks, environmental damage, pollution and river diversion. The IFC and “the people of Mongolia,” Walsh said, will hold Rio Tinto to account. He can’t really believe they will. The community of herders has little recourse and not even a fraction of the power Rio Tinto has; and Oyu Tolgoi, when completed, will account for 36 percent of Mongolia’s GDP. The scales are hopelessly tipped in Rio Tinto’s favor.
Maybe the question period of a shareholders meeting is not the place to have constructive dialogue on serious issues. Maybe those conversations have to happen after the meeting is over, or even behind closed doors. But if and when they do happen, will Rio Tinto really be listening?