How Rio Tinto can ensure its Aboriginal heritage review is transparent and independent

29 Jun 2020

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

Rio Tinto has committed to an internal review of its heritage management processes in the wake of its destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site in Western Australia last month.

After intense pressure from stakeholders and the announcement of a Senate inquiry, Rio Tinto has pledged to complete the review by October and make the findings public.

The board has appointed Michael L’Estrange, an independent non-executive director of Rio Tinto and former Australian high commissioner to the UK, to conduct the review.

The process will focus on Rio Tinto’s internal heritage standards, procedures, reporting and governance, and its relationship with the Puutu Kunti Kurama and Pinikura peoples in Western Australia.

But there are many questions about the inquiry that remain unanswered. For one, there is no indication L’Estrange will step aside from normal board duties to focus on the review, or that an independent investigating body will be created to support the process.

The credibility of the process hinges on a number of other factors, as well. These include the scope of the review, how it will be conducted, what will be disclosed publicly and who will be protected, and how will the company will respond to the review recommendations.

How other mining companies have conducted public inquiries

This is not the first time a mining giant has been thrust into the public spotlight and effectively forced to commission an independent inquiry on the impact of its operations on local communities.

Our preliminary research indicates public-private inquiries in mining can bring much-needed transparency to the industry’s typically closed approach to investigating contentious issues. They can also bring to light information that would have otherwise been invisible to the public.

The impact and effectiveness of such inquiries, however, relies on transparency over the scope, process and output itself.

For example, the global mining industry has another, very public inquiry currently underway: the Global Tailings Review (GTR).

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