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Rio Tinto appoints first Aboriginal director after sacred cave blasts

Rio Tinto has appointed an indigenous Australian to its board for the first time as the mining group grapples with the fallout from the destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal site last year.

The Anglo-Australian company said on Friday that Ben Wyatt, a former Treasurer for the Western Australia state government and a cousin of the country’s Minister for Indigenous Affairs, would bring public policy, regulatory and trade experience when he joined the board on September 1. But his appointment has raised concerns about possible conflicts of interest.

Rio is scrambling to restore its international reputation after it blew up the Juukan Gorge rock shelters in Western Australia’s Pilbara region last year, provoking an investor backlash and management and board departures.

Simon Thompson, Rio Tinto’s chair, said Wyatt’s family links to the Pilbara would significantly add to the board’s depth of knowledge as the company looks to strengthen its relationships with indigenous peoples.

Australia generates almost 90 per cent of Rio’s profits, mainly due to its large iron ore business in the Pilbara.

Wyatt accused Rio of losing touch with indigenous communities when he was state treasurer and released a draft bill to modernise the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which is designed to protect indigenous heritage sites in Western Australia.

“Whilst [Rio] may think they’re a global company, they’re a Pilbara company with overseas interests,” he said at the time. “One of the greatest risks to their operation is the fact that they don’t appear to have a significant [Pilbara] presence as a company. I don’t mean the local executives and the local team here but as a board.”

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Rio Tinto was engulfed in scandal after blowing up the Juukan Gorge rock shelters last May to expand an iron ore project  © HANDOUT/PKKP Aboriginal Corporation/AFP via Getty Images

Wyatt said on Friday he was deeply saddened and disappointed by Rio’s destruction of the sites but was convinced of the group’s commitment to changing its approach to cultural heritage issues and restoring its reputation.

“I have deep respect for the resources sector in Australia and have long been impressed with the professionalism and commitment demonstrated by Rio Tinto,” he said.

The appointment of Wyatt is a milestone for indigenous Australians, who are under-represented on public company boards. But it has provoked concerns among some shareholder advocacy groups about potential conflicts of interest. Wyatt stood down as state treasurer in March and joined the board of gas producer Woodside Petroleum earlier this week.

“Mr Wyatt’s expertise and experience makes him a very attractive candidate for both boards,” said Brynn O’Brien, executive director of the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility.

“However, given Woodside and Rio Tinto face enormous challenges in bringing their Western Australia operations into line with community expectations and ESG standards, it is fair to be concerned about their political influence.”

“From that perspective, the appointment of a very recently retired Western Australia government minister who had responsibility for key portfolios should raise eyebrows about the revolving door between government and industry,” O’Brien added.

The appointment comes as indigenous groups lobby to strengthen Wyatt’s proposed modification of the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act.

The Kimberley Land Council, which represents Aboriginal people, said last week the draft law was “seriously flawed” and warned the state government not to bow to the interests of mining groups.

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