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After 150 years of damage to people and planet, Rio Tinto ‘must be held to account’ (commentary)

Rio Tinto company logo on helmet.

Rio Tinto company logo on helmet.

  • The giant mining company Rio Tinto marks its 150th anniversary this year, yet activists say it has a dirty history.
  • As the company gathers on April 6 for its Annual General Meeting, advocates are pointing out that after all this time, its shareholders should grapple with the company’s legacy of damaging people and planet.
  • “Companies like Rio Tinto must be held accountable for the harm they cause,” a new op-ed argues, and a new law proposed in the UK – the Business, Human Rights and Environment Act – would allow people to take companies like it to court more easily for environmental and human rights abuses committed abroad.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

For most of us, it seems quite obvious that doing harm leads to consequences. It’s only fair after all – if your actions hurt someone, you get held to account and you change. However, if you happen to be a multi-billion-dollar titan of the global mining industry, the harm-to-consequences link might not seem so clear.

Our case in point here is Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining company, which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and holds its London Annual General Meeting on 6 April. The history of the company is littered with examples of environmental pollution, dispossessing people of their lands and destroying valuable cultural heritage, but the consequences it has faced have been few and far between. It still trades shares on the London Stock Exchange, still operates in 35 countries and still has an income of over $10 billion a year.

Soon, a change in UK law may mean that companies based in the UK can be taken to court for human rights and environmental harms caused in other countries. Rio Tinto would do well to pay close attention to this development, as doing damage to people, the climate and nature is not something that’s simply in the past – it is still very much a part of the company’s operations today.

Dredged ilmenite-rich sand awaits processing outside QMM's Tolagnaro plant in southeastern Madagascar. Image by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.
Communities near Rio Tinto’s QMM mine in Madagascar have recorded uranium and lead levels 52 and 40 times in excess of WHO safe drinking water standards, respectively. Shown here is mineral-rich sand that awaits processing outside QMM’s Tolagnaro plant. Image by Rowan Moore Gerety for Mongabay.

Despite promoting itself as a champion of the energy transition, Rio Tinto continues to engage in environmentally destructive practices. For instance, the company has been accused of contaminating downstream waterways and lakes in southern Madagascar with its QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM) mine’s wastewater, causing harm to local communities, and negatively impacting their livelihoods and local aquatic life. This is just one example of the company’s long-standing reputation for exploiting natural resources with little regard for the local environment and communities.

In recent years, Rio Tinto’s destruction of cultural heritage sites has also come under scrutiny. One particularly egregious example is the destruction of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia. The site, which was of great cultural and archaeological significance to the local Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples, was destroyed to make way for the expansion of an iron ore mine. Rio Tinto’s actions caused widespread outrage and led to the resignation of several senior executives.

Despite this public outcry, Rio Tinto continues to plan mines that would destroy more cultural heritage sites. One such project is the Resolution Copper project in Arizona, USA. If approved, the mine would destroy a site that is sacred to the Apache people, as well as other cultural heritage sites. This would be a devastating blow to the local community, which has fought for years to protect these sites. And as Arizona is experiencing the worst drought in 1,200 years, there simply is not enough water for this inappropriate proposal.

Rio Tinto’s disregard for the environment and cultural heritage is not limited to Australia and the United States. In Serbia, the company’s plans to mine lithium have faced significant opposition. The proposed mine would destroy forests and endangered species in the area, causing irreparable harm to the local ecosystem. Once again, Rio Tinto is putting its profits above the well-being of local communities and the environment.

See related: Rio Tinto-owned mine is polluting Malagasy water with uranium and lead, NGOs say

Demonstration outside of Rio Tinto's Annual General Meeting in April 2015. Image by Richard Solly / London Mining Network.
Demonstration outside of Rio Tinto’s Annual General Meeting in April 2015. Image by Richard Solly / London Mining Network.

However, the legal landscape that Rio Tinto and other multinationals operate in may soon shift. A proposed new law in the UK could change the way UK-based companies like Rio Tinto are held accountable for harm caused overseas. The Business, Human Rights and Environment Act would allow people to take companies to court more easily in the UK for environmental and human rights abuses committed abroad. This could be a game-changer for communities affected by companies like Rio Tinto, who currently have limited legal recourse for the harm caused by these companies.

Of course, no law can be a panacea – the need for grassroots solidarity work will not disappear, and neither will the need to apply public pressure to multinational companies. The human and environmental cost of inaction is too great to ignore. Companies like Rio Tinto must be held accountable for the harm they cause, no matter where in the world it occurs.

For those who have to live with the ecological and social impacts of its existing mines, Rio Tinto’s 150th anniversary is not a cause for celebration. The company’s legacy of environmental pollution and cultural heritage destruction is a stain on its history. The proposed new law in the UK offers hope for a more just future. It is time for companies like Rio Tinto to be held accountable for their actions, and the proposed law is a step in the right direction both to protect people against future harm and to address and redress human rights abuses and environmental damage already done. We must not let corporate interests trump the well-being of communities and the environment. The time for action is now.


Saul Jones is the communications coordinator for London Mining Network, a coalition of environmental, human rights and solidarity groups working to support communities harmed by London based mining companies.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Who benefits from resource extraction in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? A conversation with two guests, listen here:

See related commentary about the QMM mine:

On hazardous mine tailings dams, ‘safety first’ should be the rule (commentary)

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