How we are listening, learning & changing
Driving cultural change across our business
Following the destruction of two ancient rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia in May 2020, Brad Welsh is helping chart a different future for our company.
Editor: Brad, you started out working in child welfare – how did you end up in mining?
Brad: I think it’s because I’ve always been driven by curiosity. I’m interested in how things work – so I’ve ended up in very different roles.
I come from the Muruwari tribe in north-western New South Wales, and I grew up in Redfern in Sydney. I got involved in the land rights movement early on. So you know, marching the streets and getting involved in a lot of the self-determination work that was happening in Redfern at the time.
I started working in child welfare, and then I made a big transition into politics and then into mining. My intent was to come in and understand Rio, to really work out ‘what makes mining work’. Rio has such a big investment position in Indigenous communities in Australia and across the world, that understanding how to bring the world’s oldest living culture into one of the newest economies in the world was quite unique. My curiosity drove me to understand or to try and get a better knowledge of how to bring those two worlds together, for the benefit of both.
Editor: How did you feel when you heard about the Juukan Gorge rock shelters?
Brad: I thought this must be a mistake – it doesn’t fit the Rio I know. It doesn’t fit what I knew to be part of our DNA. You know, we’d worked so hard to be the leader in Indigenous affairs and we hadn’t been able to harness that in the heart of the company – the Pilbara.
Brad and his team are focusing on four main areas:
- Working directly with the PKKP people as part of the remedy process, to rebuild the relationship
- Overseeing the A$50m commitment to Indigenous leadership, over the next five years
- Implementing the board review into cultural heritage
- Supporting the Parliamentary Inquiry
Editor: You’ve stepped away from your General Manager role at our Weipa bauxite operations to become Chief Adviser to the CEO on Indigenous Affairs. What do you want to achieve in this role?
Brad: We've got billions of dollars of investment in Aboriginal communities, and I believe we can do more to maximise the benefit for the host communities. Mining can deliver huge benefits for a community that can last five decades or more. Think about how many people you can see through university, into work, and into leadership roles during that time – and those people can then help pass on skills to the next generation.
So, we need to find ways to maximise the positive impacts of that investment while preserving the culture, the identity and the language of the community. I think by working more respectfully and thinking more laterally, we can play a really positive role. One way we can do that is by bringing Indigeneity into our company culture, celebrating it, and make it part of our decision-making. We should be proud to walk in two worlds: to be part of both the world's oldest living culture and one of the newest economies.
Editor: Some people may question whether mining can really coexist with Indigenous culture in way that’s mutually beneficial and respects Indigenous connections to land. How would you respond to that?
Brad: I've seen first-hand the mutual benefits mining can bring when done well. At our Weipa bauxite operations in Cape York in Queensland, we designed the Amrun mine taking into consideration the cultural landscape, and today the Traditional Owners see it as their mine. It was really about treating the Traditional Owners as partners – learning from them how they might develop a mine rather than simply telling them how we would. We always say the only thing we can't change is the location of the ore, everything else is up for discussion.
I’m incredibly grateful for the time spent on Country, and with the old people and really understanding what their ambitions are. And I’m proud of the work we did together.
It was really about treating the Traditional Owners as partners – learning from them how they might develop a mine rather than simply telling them how we would."
Brad Welsh, Chief Adviser to the CEO on Indigenous Affairs
Editor: And you’re overseeing the US$50 million commitment to advance Indigenous leadership at Rio. How do you see the investment helping?
Brad: There are more than 30,000 Indigenous people in Australia who have bachelor degrees or higher. We want those people to come work here, be proud of their work, and grow their careers. With this US$50 million commitment, we will grow that number and develop the capacity of our company to discover the value the world's oldest living culture can bring to our future.
We want to create more Indigenous role models to show you can be anything, do any role in Rio. And that you don't have to let go of your culture by coming to work with us – in fact you can promote it and grow with it.
Editor: How do you feel about what lies ahead?
Brad: I’m still proud to wear the Rio Tinto shirt. We’re doing our own Truth Telling, which is confronting at times – but we need to be courageous.
And it's also an exciting time because it’s an opportunity to change and do things better. I'm excited about being able to make that change and to do that with thousands of people in the company who want to be part of the change too.
Rio has a demonstrated history of learning and I think that's what has allowed us to exist for 150 years. It will drive our success in the next 150 too.