Rio Tinto has appointed an Indigenous Australian as its board member 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 of the government of the state of Western Australia and a cousin of the country’s Minister for Indigenous Affairs, would bring experience in public policy, regulation and trade when he comes to Australia on 1 January. joined the board of directors in September. But his appointment has raised concerns about potential conflicts of interest.
Rio is trying to restore its international reputation after it blew up the rock shelters of the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s Pilbara region last year, leading to backlash from investors and the departure of management and board.
Simon Thompson, president of Rio Tinto, said Wyatt’s family ties to the Pilbara would contribute significantly to the board’s in-depth knowledge as the company seeks to strengthen its relationships with indigenous peoples.
Australia generates nearly 90 percent of Rio’s profits, mainly due to the large iron ore activities in the Pilbara.
Wyatt accused Rio of losing touch with Indigenous communities when he was state treasurer and introduced a bill to modernize the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act, which is designed to protect Indigenous heritage sites in Western Australia.
“While [Rio] maybe think they are a global company, they are a Pilbara company with foreign interests,” he said at the time. “One of the biggest risks to their surgery is the fact that they don’t have significant [Pilbara] presence as a company. I don’t mean the local executives and the local team here, but as a board.”
Wyatt said Friday he was deeply saddened and disappointed by Rio’s destruction of the sites, but was convinced of the group’s commitment to change its approach to cultural heritage issues and restore its reputation.
“I have deep respect for Australia’s commodities sector and have long been impressed by Rio Tinto’s professionalism and dedication,” he said.
Wyatt’s appointment is a milestone for Indigenous Australians, who are underrepresented on public company boards. But it has raised concerns among some shareholder advocacy groups about potential conflicts of interest. Wyatt stepped down as state treasurer in March and joined the board of gas producer Woodside Petroleum earlier this week.
“Mr Wyatt’s expertise and experience make him a very attractive candidate for both boards,” said Brynn O’Brien, Executive Director of the Australasian Center for Corporate Responsibility.
“However, given Woodside and Rio Tinto face enormous challenges in bringing their operations in Western Australia into line with community expectations and ESG standards, we are right to be concerned about their political influence.”
“From that perspective, the appointment of a very recently retired Western Australia minister in charge of key portfolios should raise eyebrows about the revolving door between government and industry,” O’Brien added.
The appointment comes as indigenous groups lobby to bolster Wyatt’s proposed amendment to the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Act.
The Kimberley Land Council, which represents Aboriginal people, said last week that the bill was “seriously flawed” and warned the state government not to bow to the interests of mining groups.