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Wednesday, 2 October, 2002, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
Sir Robert Wilson
Sir Robert Wilson
HARDtalk with Tim Sebastian - interview with Sir Robert Wilson, chairman of the multi-national mining company, Rio Tinto

This interview was shown on BBC World on August 27th 2002.

Please credit HARDtalk with Tim Sebastian and BBC World television if publishing extracts from this interview.

Tim Sebastian:
Among all the hordes of delegates heading for the World Summit on Sustainable Development are business leaders vowing to learn from past mistakes and do better in future. Should we believe them?

My guest today is Chairman of Rio Tinto, one of the largest mining corporations in the world. When will we see the talk converted into action?

Sir Robert Wilson, a very warm welcome to the programme.

Sir Robert Wilson:
Thank you.

Tim Sebastian:
Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, says Rio Tinto has a very bad history. Why were you so bad?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Oh, well, that may be a view of the past. And I don't actually think that we were ever as bad as is sometimes made out.

Tim Sebastian:
But you do accept mistakes? You've said you've said yourself

Sir Robert Wilson:
Oh, God! I certainly accept there were

Tim Sebastian:
Accept that we have made mistakes.

Sir Robert Wilson:
I certainly accept we've made mistakes, and there were things that we did in the past that we would do differently today. And that's

Tim Sebastian:
Like what, for instance?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, it's really a part of this whole process that we've been going through about trying to understand the implications of sustainable development for a company like ours, and for an industry like ours, and what it needs to lead us to do in terms of changing behaviour in the future.

Tim Sebastian
So how has your behaviour changed from some of the bad old days?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, I think there are really two or three areas that the sustainable development debate has focused on as far as we're concerned.

Tim Sebastian:
No, but you as a company, how you've changed your practices, procedures.

Sir Robert Wilson:
Yes. Well, I'm talking about it as a company, but the same things are true as an industry as well. We've changed our procedures very profoundly.

And so, for example, if I cite a recent project that we've been working on, which is currently under construction. This is a diamond project in the North West Territories of Canada. Now, from the very inception of that project, we've been engaged in very close dialogue with indigenous communities.

We've been reviewing and debating - not just with indigenous communities, but with a wider local community - the environmental issues associated with that project. So one of the changes - and a key change.

Tim Sebastian:
Something you wouldn't have done before?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, what we wouldn't have done before is actually had so much open discussion with potentially affected parties.

Tim Sebastian:
You'd have just gone in, ridden roughshod over the objections and done what you wanted to do?

Sir Robert Wilson:
That's one way you could describe it. It's actually not a very sensible and fair way, in my view, because what we would have done in the past is we would have gone in and we would have developed a project according to the contracts we've negotiated with a host government. And we would have assumed that was an adequate basis for us to develop a project.

Tim Sebastian:
Without talking to the community at large?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, there would have been discussions with the community, but there wouldn't have been the nature and intensity of discussion that there is today, where we're seeking very deliberately and consciously to actually have those local communities develop a sense of partnership with us on the basis that we're going to be working together for a long time. We want to have good relationships, stable relationships with those communities.

Tim Sebastian:
So is this some kind of conversion on the road to Damascus that the company has undergone? What brought this about? Growing protests?

Sir Robert Wilson:
It's a progressive evolution and, I hope, learning by our own mistakes and the mistakes of others.

Tim Sebastian:
Increasing public antipathy, you referred to, towards the industry has been evident for at least two decades, you've said.

Sir Robert Wilson:
I think that's true. Yes.

Tim Sebastian:
It's taken a long time to bring about any changes then, hasn't it?

Sir Robert Wilson:
I think that changes have begun in our company - and probably others in our industry as well - more years ago than just the last two or three years ago. But what we have done quite comprehensively in the more recent past is to actually engage in more comprehensive dialogue with people who actually traditionally have been in opposition to us.

Tim Sebastian: So, you've realised you've got it wrong in that area?

Sir Robert Wilson:
We realised that, yes, we want more open debate with affected communities than we've sometimes had in the past.

Tim Sebastian:
And the people who got it wrong have been fired or have they been converted to the new methods?

Sir Robert Wilson:
I think people learn from experience, don't you?

Tim Sebastian:
Do they always?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, maybe they don't always, but that's certainly what we're trying to do.

Tim Sebastian:
There are environmental pressure groups that say you really shouldn't have a place in a conference, in a government delegation, an official delegation, going to the conference on sustainable development. How would you react to that? They say your record is so bad that you should be barred actually from participation.

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, I think it's very clear that if the Johannesburg conference is going to achieve results - and I'm mindful too that one of the criticisms of Rio was it was all talk and no action. This conference is intended to be much more focused on implementation. Now, you can't have sustainable development without development. And you can't have development without the participation of business and industry. So it seems to me to be wholly sensible and desirable that business should be a part of the conference along with other parts of society and along with government.

Tim Sebastian:
But the fear is - and again being expressed by environmental groups, pressure groups - is that this is going to be one more sham. It will lead to a lot of unenforceable, voluntary agreements, as opposed to forms of international regulation. We aren't going to see regulation, we're going to see a lot of hot air, aren't we, essentially?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, I don't know whether we're going to see regulation or not. Regulation is a matter for governments to decide. It's not a matter for business to decide. It's not a matter for non-governmental organisations to decide.

Tim Sebastian:
But Greenpeace says relying on voluntary agreements to achieve policy objectives leaves us hostage to fortune and, in many cases, simply won't deliver the required outcomes.

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, personally I don't have a problem with regulation per se. But regulation needs to be very carefully directed, doesn't it? Because if we look at, for example, an area which has been regulated comprehensively now for 100 years, accounting standards, we still see that there are problems emerging in the last 12 months, with effectively fraudulent behaviour being conducted by a very small number of players.

Tim Sebastian:
So, as with accountants, so with business leaders, we'll have to take everything on trust - pretty much?

Sir Robert Wilson:
No, I don't think it - well, I don't think trust does any harm incidentally, and I do ---

Tim Sebastian:
Not when the record is as bad as it is, when Clare Short says Rio Tinto has a very bad history, it doesn't necessarily ---

Sir Robert Wilson:
I think she went on to say that - and we're also doing quite a bit to improve it.

Tim Sebastian:
Well, she does say getting these big operations to change the way they perform across the world is absolutely key to a sustainable planet - implying that it's an ongoing process to get you and others to change. That's the implication from that statement, isn't it?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, I think actually you missed a part of that quote out. But so what? The point you're saying is: can it all be achieved by regulation? The number of issues that are raised in sustainable development seem to me to be extraordinarily difficult to cover by regulation. Now, we've been through an extended project in our industry, and an extended analysis within that project called "Minings, Minerals and Sustainable Development". Amongst the multiple conclusions that came out of that exercise - this was an independent analysis conducted with many participants into the project.

Tim Sebastian:
Its conclusions aren't binding on anybody, are they?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Its conclusions aren't binding on anybody, but what it ---

Tim Sebastian:
So, it could be described as window dressing?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, so can practically everything be described as window dressing if you assume that people have no sincere intent. That seems to me to be a very cynical way, though, of approaching the way in which a lot of large companies are very obviously making a major effort to raise their performance.

Tim Sebastian:
But there has been reason to doubt that serious intent in the past, hasn't it? So in a sense, trust is something that you and other business leaders are going to have to earn given the past mistakes, isn't it?

Sir Robert Wilson:
I would accept at least in part that's a valid comment, that we have to earn trust. Trust though, incidentally, has to be two ways.

Tim Sebastian:
How do you mean?

Sir Robert Wilson:
I mean that we have trust those who want to criticise and contribute to the debate about how we should behave as well. And that's all part of what this global mining initiative that I was referring to was all about. It was about having us get into active dialogue with some of our historic critics. And those critics that participated in that process, that participated in the conference we had for three days in Toronto, 600 people, a few months ago, amongst that group of people I believe there was a substantial reduction of the trust deficit which has scarred the debate for a long, long time.

Tim Sebastian:
All right. You've given me one area where you've said you're going to improve, you're going to consult more with local people. What other changes do you envisage, concrete changes? I mean, you come to an area, you want to mine, you want to mine uranium or gold or copper or whatever you want to mine. How's the procedure going to change, apart from just talking to local people? What differences are people going to see around the world in your behaviour?

Sir Robert Wilson:
The projects, as I said, are going to adopt an integrated approach in terms of the, consistent with the three streams of sustainable development: the economic stream, the social stream and the environmental stream.

Tim Sebastian:
But in concrete terms, what is that going to mean to people? What differences are we going to see in the way you approach things, apart from more consultation?

Sir Robert Wilson:
It's not more - it may well mean more studies as well. It may mean too differences in the way in which we would actually develop a project. And we're even using sustainable development philosophy not just on new projects where we can start, we have the benefit of starting with a clean slate, but we're also retrofitting the approach to some of our existing operations. So that we have one operation in the States, a borax operation in the Mojave Desert in California, which is now completely reviewing its operations through the intellectual and conceptual approach of sustainable development.

Tim Sebastian:
So you're going to take basically more care of the environment and environmental concerns?

Sir Robert Wilson:
That is going to be another product of it. So it's taking more care of community concerns and environmental issues, yes.

Tim Sebastian:
But again the commitments are non-binding. There's concern about the language of the draft texts for the summit which apparently have already been watered down. You take, for example, the text of the draft plan on implementation - has terms like 'promoting corporate responsibility and accountability and the exchange of best practices'.

When the text first appeared in January, it read 'launching negotiations for a multinational agreement on global corporate responsibility.' It was stronger language. Has there been a process by business leaders or government or whoever to water down the achievements of this conference even before it gets off the ground?

Sir Robert Wilson:
If there has been such a process, I've certainly not been party to it.

Tim Sebastian:
So, as far as you're concerned, you want to live up to Clare Short's aim, which is to give the world's poor a better share of the planet's resources in ways that don't cause terrible problems in the future. Is that fair?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Obviously my prime responsibility is to manage Rio Tinto and to manage that business for its shareholders and its owners. But I believe that it is quite consistent to do that in a way which is compatible with the primary objectives of the Johannesburg summit.

Tim Sebastian:
You say that there is enormous importance in listening to the communities in the areas where you mine.

Sir Robert Wilson:
Yes.

Tim Sebastian:
Friends of the Earth say you appear to be deaf when it comes to the clear opposition of the Mirrar Aboriginal community against the plan to Jabaluca uranium mine in Australia's Kakadu National Park.

Now, this is - I don't need to tell you - Australia's highest profile environmental row, isn't it, over the future of this mine? Why would they accuse you of not listening to the community there?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Perhaps they're not listening. Because we acquired this as a part of a company called North two years ago. Within months of acquiring it, I announced publicly that there would be no development of that project without the consent of the traditional landowners, the Mirrar people. I repeated that statement at the AGM this year.

Tim Sebastian:
But you haven't said you won't develop the mine in the future.

Sir Robert Wilson:
I'm responding to the point about not being deaf, about being deaf to the voice of the local people. And I'm saying we won't develop it without their consent, full stop.

Tim Sebastian:
Full stop?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Full stop.

Tim Sebastian:
Nothing will happen at all?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Nothing will happen.

Tim Sebastian:
So it isn't a question of this hanging over them, the future of the mine hanging over them?

Sir Robert Wilson:
No development without their consent. And that's what I've said repeatedly for two years. I'm not saying anything new to you now.

Tim Sebastian:
And damage to the site that's already taken place, damage. They say that their sites, sacred sites, have been desecrated. What will happen to those?

Sir Robert Wilson:
I don't actually think that's the case.

Tim Sebastian:
Well, that's what they're saying. This is a continuing concerns. Continuing concerns about contamination in the area as well. What about the clean up from contamination?

Sir Robert Wilson:
There is on this projected site no more than a tiny, a tiny hole, an adit - technical terms - an adit of the development. What we will do is to rehabilitate that area, we'll block off the adit. But, I mean, this is not a very large area, nor is it in any way a threat to the environment.

Tim Sebastian:
But they are talking about 115 documented leaks, spills and operating breaches at the uranium operations in Kakadu.

Sir Robert Wilson:
This alludes to a quite different operation which is a part of the group that we took over, and a lot of those allegations we've refuted in detail elsewhere. I don't think we want to go into them now.

Tim Sebastian:
You've got some new thinking on this issue then over the last two years, that you want to take into account local people's feelings.

Sir Robert Wilson:
You describe it as a new issue. I would put it actually a different way. I would say that what we're doing is recognising what we've sometimes done very well in the past - but we haven't routinely done it very well. And we need to actually have a discipline which is going to ensure that all these issues are addressed to the best standards that we're capable of achieving.

Tim Sebastian:
Do you think those best standards are being applied by your subsidiary PTCPM in its plans to open a gold mine in Indonesia, in Central Sulawesi, where there's considerable opposition?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Can I stop you. You're relying on a very inadequate source of information. This is a potential, this is an exploration site where we haven't explored since 1999. Now, there is an NGO, the same NGO you referred to earlier, repeatedly alleging that we're exploring there. We're not. We haven't been there since 1999.

Tim Sebastian:
But you did bore, do test bores there?

Sir Robert Wilson:
We may have done, we may have done. Before 1999.

Tim Sebastian:
In an area where test bores are not supposed to have been made?

Sir Robert Wilson:
No. No, no, no, no.

Tim Sebastian:
No?

Sir Robert Wilson:
We had a legitimate exploration license.

Tim Sebastian:
The local nature conservation officers said they refused PTCPM a request to do bores, test bores, within the forest park.

Sir Robert Wilson:
But I'm telling you we haven't ---

Tim Sebastian
But the company went ahead anyway.

Sir Robert Wilson:
But I'm telling you we haven't been there for three years. I really can't - we've rebutted these issues in writing. It doesn't seem to me to be a very relevant issue to be focusing on or asking.

Tim Sebastian:
So are you saying that there are lessons that have been learnt from this then, this experience?

Sir Robert Wilson:
I'm saying we've already addressed those issues. We've addressed those - we're not exploring in that project in Indonesia.

Tim Sebastian:
It's not going to happen? There's going to be no gold mine there?

Sir Robert Wilson:
I don't know whether there's going to be a gold mine there. That's up to the Indonesian government and any other company that may go there. There's not going to be a Rio Tinto gold mine there.

Tim Sebastian:
Absolutely not? Under any circumstances?

Sir Robert Wilson:
No, no. But again, I'm not saying anything new. We're just - I'm afraid that we're spending time rehearsing some allegations which are inaccurate.

Tim Sebastian:
But these are allegations that are still out there, so it's useful to get your reaction to them?

Sir Robert Wilson:
But we've rebutted them in writing to the people making those allegations, and it doesn't seem to be a very constructive basis of debate going forward.

Tim Sebastian:
Well, if those are still out there - I mean, for instance PT Kelian, Equatorial Mining, 90% owned by you, runs a gold mine in East Kalimantan, over 200,000 hectares of indigenous lands taken. The result, say local groups: local incomes have fallen, environmental pollution, human right violations. What about that particular site?

Sir Robert Wilson:
That is still an existing gold mine, which is going to be closing down within the relatively near future, a few years rather than the very long term. We're doing whatever we can not just to rehabilitate the environment, but to provide those local communities with ongoing forms of economic activity after the mine has closed. And that is another aspect ---

Tim Sebastian:
Sufficient to deal with their severe issues like environmental pollution?

Sir Robert Wilson:
It will deal with the issues of environmental pollution, yes. It will deal with that. But I was going to say that one of the changes which is now occurring in the way that our industry is approaching projects, is that when we start a mine, we're already beginning to plan for its closure.

And what we're wanting to achieve on closure is not only environmental rehabilitation, but also to provide the opportunities as best we can for the local community to have sustainable livelihoods that will go on beyond the mine life.

Now, most of our projects are in fact pretty long life projects. They're measured in decades. So there is a reasonable opportunity to get that sort of sustainable livelihood opportunity in place over time.

Tim Sebastian:
But in this particular one we were talking about in Kalimantan, there's going to be compensation paid to those who have suffered?

Sir Robert Wilson:
There already has been. It's already been agreed and signed.

Tim Sebastian:
And in Lihir, Papua New Guinea?

Sir Robert Wilson:
There too.

Tim Sebastian:
Where waste has been dumped in the sea containing cadmium, tin, arsenic.

Sir Robert Wilson:
All right.

Tim Sebastian:
Seven kilometres of coral has been destroyed there.

Sir Robert Wilson:
Let me make another point which I think is quite important in the context of sustainable development and the approach to it. Sometimes people have to take hard choices. There are three aspects to sustainable development. There are the economic aspects, there are the social aspects and then there are the environmental aspects. Now, if you take the Lihir project in Indonesia, we have obvious economic benefits to the Papua New Guinea community: the government in terms of revenues, the income that comes to the community, the ---

Tim Sebastian:
But not the local people who are complaining?

Sir Robert Wilson:
The social development that comes to - the local people aren't complaining. The social development that comes to the community in terms of health, education facilities that didn't previously exist. And yes, it's true that in a project like that there is an environmental price. It's not actually anything like such a serious environmental price as you imply, because this is not prime coral in this region, it's a volcanic area. So this has substantially destroyed the coral in any case. But also the deep water disposal of the overburden material, the rock that isn't being used, that is used in the process, is actually not an environmental problem.

Tim Sebastian:
You say hard decisions have to be made, and there is an environmental price to pay. We're living in a world where that is increasingly unpopular, to pay an environmental price for anything. Are you prepared for the unpopularity, continuing unpopularity in this?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Well, I think it behoves all of us to be realistic. You can't have a new motorway in Britain, you can't have a new airport in Britain, without there being an environmental price.

Someone, somewhere has to make the decision about the trade off decision. And the trade off decision should always be, in a perfect world, the responsibility of a democratically elected government.

One of the issues that sustainable development and maybe Johannesburg will be addressing as well is, well, it's all very well to talk about the requirement and the need for governments to make these trade off decisions, but sometimes they don't have the capacity, they haven't got the experience to make those decisions, those trade off decisions.

And my response to that is that that is one of the challenges that lies out there, not for the corporate sector to actually fill that gap - because we'd be seen to have a vested interest - but for intergovernmental agencies and for Western governments to do what they can to increase the capacity of governments in the developing world so that wise decisions can be taken.

Tim Sebastian:
How do you get that to happen without just another bunch of fine declarations and fine words coming out at the end of the summit?

Sir Robert Wilson:
I can't make it happen. I can't make it happen at all. I'm just saying that. But I think it is another one of those ---

Tim Sebastian:
You can mobilise other companies, can't you?

Sir Robert Wilson:
Yes, but companies alone can't do that. There are a lot of - I'm not sure that I can mobilise other companies incidentally. But it's pointing to one of the other key issues out of Johannesburg.

And that is if we really want to achieve progress in sustainable development, we need to have a culture of cooperation and collaboration between the various parties, between governments and industry, between governments, industry and intergovernmental organisations and civil society, whether it's represented by local communities or by non-governmental organisations.

There needs to be a way in which we can work together in a spirit of cooperation towards agreed goals.

Tim Sebastian:
Let's hope that comes out of it. Sir Robert Wilson, it's been a great pleasure having you on the programme.

Sir Robert Wilson:
Thank you.

Tim Sebastian:
Thank you very much indeed.



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