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Confronting Rio Tinto's dirty tricks

Trade unionists around the world are uniting to resist the strong-arm tactics of the notorious mining company. PAUL DONOVAN reports

A succession of trade union and community representatives from across the world have told how mining giant Rio Tinto is practising a 21st century form of colonialism.

Addressing a forum organised by the London Mining Network at Amnesty International in London earlier this month, they explained how the company makes offers to national governments that they cannot refuse.

This then leads in some cases to governments almost becoming an arm of Rio Tinto’s operations.

The company operates in this way across many countries, practising a divide-and-rule policy toward governments, workers and citizens.

Mamy Rakontrainibe, of Tany in France, explained how the company QIT Minerals Madagascar is 80 per cent owned by Rio Tinto and 20 per cent by the government.

The mining operations have resulted in destruction of the environment, including pollution of the air and rivers.

“RT have denied local people access to the forests,” said Rakontrainibe.

“When RT came to Madagascar they presented themselves as a big corporation that would bring development to the country. Whereas what we’ve observed is that they’ve come to Madagascar and we have lost our homes and had to go elsewhere,” said Perle Zafinandro of community organisation Fagnomba in Madagascar.

“Before they came to Madagascar RT bought out the political powers. If Madagascans don’t agree with the activities of RT, the authorities act to protect RT.”

However the fightback has gained strength over the last four years, with indigenous people organising barricades around the mining operations. These activities began in October 2010 with just a few people but now around 8,000 are taking part.

Zafinandro called for help in rolling back the power of the company in Madagascar.

“We’re in the 21st century. It is no longer acceptable to have colonisation, yet that is what we have in another form in Madagascar,” Zafinandro said.

Roger Featherstone from the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition told of the battle with Rio Tinto at Oak Flat, near Phoenix, Arizona.

Featherstone explained how the company BHP/RT developed a copper mine, taking out a cubic mile of soil then dumping it elsewhere in order to save money rather than infilling the space.

Featherstone claimed that Rio Tinto would trample over every federal law if it could.

“They’ve used every dirty trick in the book, bought everyone who is for sale but they’ve lost,” said Featherstone, who said community organisations have been resisting the company on the ground and in the legislative assemblies.

Benny Wenda of the Free West Papua campaign complained of collusion between the Indonesian rulers of West Papua and Rio Tinto.

“This company is operating in the middle of a genocide,” said Wenda, who explained how the West Papuans are unable to speak out.

“There is intimidation of my people and destruction of the environment.”

Marta Conde of Autonomos of the University of Barcelona told of Rio Tinto operations in Namibia.

In Namibia, Rio Tinto operates under the name of Rossing Rio Tinto.

Research conducted by Conde found that working in the uranium mine was having a detrimental effect on workers’ health.

“Some 39 people complained of health problems. They were not informed about the health conditions and didn’t know if they had been exposed to radiation or not.”

Workers were found to be contracting TB, lung infections and cancer. Many would retire and die shortly afterwards. “Uranium mining companies gently deny that workers get sick because of exposure to radiation,” said Conde.

Analysis has been conducted of both the rock dump and tailings coming from the mines. The dump was found to result in water contamination that saw an increase in fluoride, arsenic and zinc.

The tailings resulted in high concentrations of uranium downstream of a dam.

“We are demanding that Rossing should allow independent specialists to have access to the mining facilities in order to carry out independent monitoring of the mine,” said Conde.

There was further evidence of the growing grass-roots fightback against the ravages caused by Rio Tinto from Adam Lee from IndustriALL, the global mining union.

Lee explained how the union had looked for one of the most offensive multinational mining operators to confront and came up with Rio Tinto.

“A lot of our members are employed by RT and want to see it treat workers better,” said Lee, who added that the company had a reputation for picking fights with trade unions around the world.

Lee said that the unions want a global campaign to confront Rio Tinto in each country where it operates.

IndustriALL intends to resist Rio Tinto’s efforts to keep negotations separate to each country, effectively using divide-and-rule tactics.

“They also want to divide labour from civil society,” said Lee, who indicated that this sometimes amounted to getting workers to line up against environmental groups.

“We will be exposing the ugly truth about RT and making them live up to their own claims,” he said, adding that Rio Tinto “is not a socially responsible company at the moment.”

The swathe of damage being caused across the world by the mining exploits of Rio Tinto was apparent in the different testimonies from Africa to north America.

However there was encouraging news of community-based fightbacks that are seeing the company being confronted and pressed to act in a more responsible way.

There is a long way to go, but people are beginning to take on the company over the way it behaves at local, national and international levels.

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