“A reputation gets traded every day”: The true cost of Rio Tinto’s decision to blow up historic Indigenous site

rio tinto blasts caves

Rio Tinto blast sparks outrage.

On May 24, Rio Tinto blew up 46,000-year-old Indigenous rock shelters. Then, despite decimating the site in full knowledge of its incalculable value, the company seemed wholly unprepared for what followed.

In response to the backlash, Iron Ore for Rio Tinto chief executive Chris Salisbury went on radio to defend the company’s actions. Listening to the interview, Salisbury sounded uncomfortable and ill-equipped for the questions he faced.

His paltry and repetitious responses rang hollow and did nothing to calm public outrage or shareholder disquiet, amounting to little more than an ‘oops our bad, we’ll try not to do that again’.

An unnamed long-serving senior manager with Rio Tinto commented to The Age: “Was the price of the ore considered a lower-risk value than the blast’s repetitional consequences?”

It’s a great question. And one that, if applied broadly, shines a light on a different calculation in all manner of decisions organisations make when cash is the only capital valued. It’s a concept explored by Peter Tunjic in his work highlighting the many ways corporations practise what amounts to ‘decapitalism in their failure to consider the relative values of what they are trading.

A reputation carries across internal and external environments that the work which is used to generate it has little to do with. Good or bad, it’s a capital which grows through use. Rio Tinto can only extract the iron ore from that site once. It can only sell it once. A reputation gets traded every day.

By all accounts, Rio Tinto did have a reputation for building relationships and confidence with traditional owners of the sites it mines. And no-one is disputing the time the company spent talking with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) Aboriginal Corporation about this location.

“We work hard to leave a lasting, positive legacy everywhere we work,” reads the headline in the section about sustainability on Rio Tinto’s website. How long will it be before people believe the implicit promise of those words again?

Was the promise even considered when evidence of the site’s significance emerged? If it was, it didn’t stop the company from breaking it, literally kicking dirt in the face of those relationships and their reputation in the process. 

By ignoring or under-valuing its reputation, Rio Tinto made a bad trade. The explosives detonated a reckoning that we can only hope will ripple for many years. 

I doubt an accounting of the full cost will ever happen. However, broader impacts have already started. Rio Tinto has lost the endorsement of Reconciliation Australia, and its actions have ignited increasing scrutiny of other mining company heritage practices.

The brand is a result. And years of goodwill and accomplishment can erode in an instant. It’s well past time to start considering the different things we trade with every action and decision, especially those with high stakes.

See you next time.

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