The mining company Rio Tinto, in which the Church of England has lost tens of millions of pounds, was attacked by dissatisfied shareholders at its AGM yesterday - and not only by the 'usual suspects'.
The company has come in for repeated criticism from groups such as War on Want who say it is complicit in human rights abuses while making huge profits in developing countries. Representatives of communities in Colombia, West Papua and the USA also say their operations are unsustainable and unfair, causing irreversible environmental damage.
Objections at Rio Tinto's AGM this week were raised to the proposed bailout by Chinalco, the level of executive pay, the clash of the AGM with that of Anglo American, the failure of the Board to plan for the economic slowdown and the massive increase in payments to auditors to over $160 million.
According to the 2007 Annual Report of the Church Commissioners, the Church of England's investment was worth around £70 million. However.the share price has more than halved since its peak.
Objections were also raised at the AGM in relation to the Eagle project in Michigan, USA, the Grasberg joint venture project in West Papua, involvement with the Muriel Mining Corporation in Colombia and the Ranger mine in Australia.
Chairman Paul Skinner excused the Board for failing to foresee the severity of the economic slowdown on the grounds that nobody else foresaw it either. But other than that, the Board appeared convinced of its own near infallibility, and invited shareholders simply to trust it.
Andy Whitmore, representing London Mining Network member group PIPLinks, said: “The Chair’s Statement in the Annual Report(1) suggests that he and the Board were right to resist the BHP Billiton bid, right about the Alcan deal, right about the current Chair staying on temporarily (when the Chairman Designate resigned after a month, for what appears to be no reason, in February 2009) and – of course – right about the Chinalco deal. It is breathtaking how the view of the Board seems to differ so much from that of pretty much everyone else. With this level of spin it is no surprise that such a large number of shareholders wished to express their annoyance with both the performance of the company and the arrogance of the Board. The Board seems to be living in another world, like Alice in Wonderland.”
On the issues of most pressing importance for London Mining Network member groups, both Paul Skinner and CEO Tom Albanese avoided giving straight answers to simple questions say campaigners.
They responded repeatedly to issues of indigenous peoples’ rights by stating that some people were opposed to the projects in question, others in favour, that they would create jobs and that they would therefore go ahead with them. They refused to deal with the underlying issue of contention – the pursuit of mining projects on indigenous land against the express wishes of indigenous communities.
On the issue of climate change, Albanese said that the company believes it is a serious problem and that each division of the company is coming up with ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the company continues producing enormous quantities of coal and sees continuing growth as the only answer to the world’s economic problems – despite the fact that the present model of economic growth has led to the current financial crisis and brought the planet to the brink of ecological and climate catastrophe.