Highlights

Rio Tinto’s understanding of people’s connection to land has evolved significantly in recent decades

Agreements have become central to the way we work in partnership with land-connected people

Why agreements matter guide, published in 2016, draws on the Group’s rich history of more than 150 community agreements

At times it may seem difficult for a resources company – with its scientific, engineering and operational focus – to understand different people’s spiritual and cultural relationships with land.

To Indigenous peoples, it is home. But it’s also something much more profound: a place of deep physical, spiritual and cultural connection. Indigenous peoples do not own the land in the traditional European sense – the land is part of them. In the words of Aboriginal Elder Loyla Chevathen, “Our country is who we are. It is our culture and our past and future”.

Rio Tinto’s understanding of people’s connection to land, and how land can be used for both economic and social benefit, has evolved significantly in recent decades.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. In the late 1980s, for example, production at our Panguna copper mine (operated by Rio Tinto subsidiary Bougainville Copper Limited) in Papua New Guinea was brought to a complete halt and personnel were subsequently evacuated following heightened militant activity against the mine and personnel by factions from within the local communities. During the same period, Aboriginal Traditional Owner groups used heritage and environmental legislation to delay expansion plans in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Supporting good practice
across the industry

Supporting good
practice across
the industry

Rio Tinto’s Why agreements matter guide, published in 2016, draws on the Group’s rich history of more than 150 community agreements, and sets out our journey and learnings in agreement-making to date.

Rio Tinto’s Why agreements matter guide, published in 2016, draws on the Group’s rich history of more than 150 community agreements, and sets out our journey and learnings in agreement-making to date.

Janina Gawler, the Group’s global practice leader, Communities and Social Performance, said the guide was designed to support good practice and ongoing learning across the wider mining industry, and act as a resource for communities and governments.

“This guide will assist our employees as well as other industry colleagues to manage the development and implementation of agreements more efficiently and effectively,” Janina said.

“The case research and process documentation in this guide demonstrate the knowledge gained by Rio Tinto throughout years of negotiating and implementing agreements.”

Why agreements matter is the fourth in the series of Rio Tinto’s good practice guides: Why human rights matter, Why gender matters, and Why cultural heritage matters.

Image: Rio Tinto Gove Traditional Owner agreements ready for signature, June 2011

At the time of the Native Title Act in Australia, we saw that agreements needed to be part of the way we do business. This has proven to be the case.

Janina Gawler, Rio Tinto's global practice leader, Communities and Social Performance

Why agreements matter

In the early 1990s, a pivotal High Court decision in Australia reshaped our approach to engagement with Indigenous peoples. In response to a claim by Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo, the court ruled that the land was not “terra nullius” (belonging to no one). Shortly afterwards, the Native Title Act came into force, recognising native title to land. Breaking with the rest of the industry, which feared the implications of this new law, Rio Tinto instead welcomed it. Leon Davis, the company’s chief executive at the time, saw “major opportunities for growth in outback Australia which will only be realised with the full cooperation of all interested parties.”

In recognising that successful progress depended on active partnership with communities and Indigenous people, Davis was setting the vision for how Rio Tinto would operate in the future. Today, nearly 20 years after our first land use agreement was signed with Traditional Owner groups in Yandicoogina, Australia, we have negotiated more than 40 land use agreements around the world.

Janina Gawler, Rio Tinto’s global practice leader, Communities and Social Performance, underlines that agreements like the ground-breaking Argyle Participation Agreement are not “nice to haves” but essential to realising land access and mining opportunities today.

“At the time of the Native Title Act in Australia, we saw that agreements needed to be part of the way we do business. This has proven to be the case,” she said.

“At many sites, agreements have made it possible to secure a decision to invest and avoid a lengthy process of approval seeking.

“If you ask me why agreements matter I’d say it’s simple: they pay off both for Rio Tinto and the communities where we operate.”

In our publication Why agreements matter, Glen Camille, Eastern Guruma Elder, said that respecting culture and connection to land was important to building strong relationships between companies and Traditional Owner groups.

“If I look back at a saying from a great man, someone I respect and look up to as a great leader, Uncle Slim Parker he says: ‘Our culture is our culture, our law is our law, our land is our land and still is our land today,’” Glen said.

“If companies looked at building their relationships based on these principles, I think it would certainly build stronger relationships between the Traditional Owner groups and mining companies today.”


Vital agreements

Vital agreements

The case of the Argyle Diamond Mine in Western Australia illustrates how agreements can be formulated with both sensitivity and fairness.

The case of the Argyle Diamond Mine in Western Australia illustrates how agreements can be formulated with both sensitivity and fairness.

In 1980 the Good Neighbour Agreement was established to meet the needs of the Aboriginal people. It was a breakthrough Agreement at a time when the State government stipulated that no cash compensation would be paid to Aboriginal groups for working on land that they claimed. Of course matters have changed considerably in the past quarter of a century.

When in 2001 it sought to extend the mine’s life, Argyle signed a Memorandum of Understanding for negotiations towards a new agreement under the Native Title Act. In 2004, the Argyle Participation Agreement (APA) formally acknowledged the traditional custodianship of the mining lease. At the time it was thought to be unique in stating that its plans for an underground mine would not proceed without the permission of Traditional Owners agreed. The APA covers land rights, employment and training commitments, heritage site protection and income sharing.

 

Image: Manthe at the 10-year anniversary celebration of the Argyle Agreement, 2014

Hard-won lessons

The idea that land use agreements are essential today is echoed by Rob Atkinson, head of Productivity and Technical Support, Growth & Innovation at Rio Tinto. Having worked on agreements at Rio Tinto operations in Australia and Mongolia, Rob has seen their impact first hand.

“Agreements are critical in all cases today. No matter how hard the challenges involved in creating an agreement, if you lose the local community, the task becomes impossible,” Rob said.

Rob also notes the importance of resolving legacy issues.

“Only by sorting out the past can you get into a position to think about the future. Reconciliation is essential,” he said.

From its beginnings in Australia, our approach spread around the world. By 2003, ten years on from the Native Title Act, agreements had been signed in Canada, Indonesia and Zimbabwe. As Janina Gawler points out, the company’s experience has positioned it well in a world where the concept of building and maintaining “social licence to operate” is the norm.

“With more regulations and greater expectations of miners today, Rio Tinto is ahead of the curve thanks to the hard-won lessons of Australia.”

Agreements aren’t easy, says Rob Atkinson, pointing out the difficulty of “distilling a 1,000 page legal document into 20 key themes and ensuring nothing is ‘lost in translation’”. But he is convinced of their value.

Securing a
better future

Securing a
better future

At Weipa in Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, partnership agreements are making progress possible while respecting culture and sharing the benefits of mine growth.

At Weipa in Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, partnership agreements are making progress possible while respecting culture and sharing the benefits of mine growth.

The site of this major bauxite mine has had a troubled past. Today, three Aboriginal agreements underpin our activities at Weipa: the Western Cape Communities Co-existence Agreement (WCCCA), the Ely Bauxite Mining Project Agreement, and the Weipa Township Agreement. As at December 2016, Weipa’s Indigenous employee participation rate was 27 per cent1 compared with a national industry average of six per cent2. The recent US$1.9 billion Amrun bauxite project, close to Weipa, was in part made possible by a management plan agreed with Wik-Waya Traditional Owners.

Wik-Waya Traditional Owner Loyla Chevathen explains what this plan means.

“We understand that the mine will change our country,” Loyla said.

“These changes mean that some cultural heritage places need to be moved and disturbed to allow the mine to be built.

“We accept that this is necessary but at the same time we want to make sure that the places that are left behind are properly looked after for future generations.”

 

Image: Scar trees, Weipa, Queensland, Australia

 

1Figure includes all Rio Tinto Weipa-based entities
2Source: Minerals Council of Australia

How could we use that compensation money? How could we set up more programmes?

Cyril Lockyer, Kuruma Marthudenera Elder

“The risk-reward balance is massively favourable. Agreements are a catalyst for Indigenous employment and for strong partnerships,” Rob said.

“They build local business capability and improve corporate reputation. There are so many ‘wins’ to be had from a good agreement backed by strong community relations. Creating agreements is not without risk – but it’s intelligent risk-taking”.

In Why agreements matter, Cyril Lockyer, Kuruma Marthudenera Elder says that the agreement process gave his people the opportunity to better plan for the future.

“The funny thing about it [the mining boom and the agreements] is that it gave a lot more people a chance to get out on country [to do survey work] but it also gave us an opportunity to do better planning: How could we use that compensation money? How could we set up more programmes?,” he said.

“It was sort of a good thing for us because the companies upped the antes; they took more land but it also involved signing more contracts, so it put us in a pretty good position.”

Today, our experience in land use agreements has made it possible to set down and codify the behaviours and steps that are needed to earn and maintain trust and reciprocity with communities. And in doing so, the company as a whole is learning to see land from the perspectives of all the people whose lives are linked to it.


Investing for the
long term

Investing for the
long term

In Mongolia, the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold operation has the potential to make a significant contribution to the country’s development and prosperity.

In Mongolia, the Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold operation has the potential to make a significant contribution to the country’s development and prosperity.

Since 2010, Oyu Tolgoi has injected US$6.1 billion to the Mongolian economy through salaries, payments to Mongolian suppliers, taxes and other payments to the Government. Here, a Cooperation Agreement with the mine’s partnership communities aims to ensure that the mine promotes sustainable socioeconomic development. The agreement, which took four years to finalise, encompasses employment and training, environmental management, cultural protection and local business development. It formalises how the mine will contribute to local communities in the coming years, and allocates US$5 million per year for community development.

Like many mining operations, Oyu Tolgoi is a project with a long life cycle. It underlines the fact that community agreements need to be for the long term – some have horizons beyond 50 years – and also “embedded” into the way of working at Rio Tinto. In 2014, this was formalised: the company mandated that agreement-making be part of the communities and social performance standards for Indigenous and traditional land-connected peoples where long-term projects are planned.

 

Image: Ancient petroglyphs from Javkhlant rock, near the Oyu Tolgoi project area in Mongolia