Monday, November 23, 2020

Rio Tinto Mining Blew up Aboriginal site (Sept. 2020)


            Rio Tinto is a mining company out of Australia that was founded in 1873. They are one of the many companies that mine in Australia. In May 2020 Rio Tinto blew up a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site while trying to mine for iron ore. Six years prior to the incident (2014) they found artifacts while digging. Some artifacts were 4,000 years old. In blowing up this Aboriginal heritage site it created a lot of backlash from indigenous landowners and descendants of the people who had lived there. Rio Tinto did have permission from the government to dig there (2013), so what they were doing was not illegal, but it was unethical, and many people were upset, distraught, and enraged.

            This paper will analyze Rio Tinto’s controversy in Australia in relation to the ethical theories Individualism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, and Virtue theory. This is done in order to properly explain how Rio Tinto was acting ethically or unethically. From an individualist standpoint there is nothing wrong or unethical about what they are doing. They did not harm anyone, and they did not break the law. They were mining to maximize profits and doing so legally. From a Utilitarian standpoint Rio Tinto acted unethically. This is because no one was happy as a result of them blowing up the Aboriginal heritage site. The stakeholders were unhappy because they got let go and they had to pay a collective $5 million cut from their bonuses. The indigenous landowners and ancestors were unhappy because their heritage was destroyed and disrespected. From a Kantian perspective what Rio Tinto did was unethical because they were using the land/caves to make a profit. They did not view the caves as something valuable in itself. They viewed the caves as a way to make a profit. They also viewed the land as a mere means rather than seeing it as an end in itself. From a virtue theorist perspective, the actions presented were not moral or ethical. They did not express or demonstrate all the Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance). Instead of stopping themselves from moving forward and blowing up the Aboriginal site/caves, they let greed consume them and they could not hold themselves back. Rio Tinto needs to focus on their business process and their ethics within. They should also focus on their relationships with their customers and the Indigenous people/descendants of the Aboriginal heritage sites.

Ethics Case Controversy

            Rio Tinto is a mining company out of Australia. They were founded in 1873 and they operate out of 36 countries. As of 2019 they had 60 operations and projects going on. They are one of the largest mining companies out there today. Rio Tinto mines for aluminum, iron ore, copper, uranium, and diamonds. In this instance in the years leading up to 2011, Rio Tinto wanted to mine for iron ore in the Pilbara region specifically Juukan Gorge, Western Australia. “The Juukan Gorge was just one of 463 cultural sites which mining companies have applied for permission to destroy or disturb since 2010, with none of the applications refused” (Smith, Douglas). Some other companies who got their requests to mine accepted were Fortescue Metals Group, Hamersley Iron, Mineral Resources and BHP Billiton. So, Rio Tinto had sent in a request to mine there and “received permission to conduct the blasts in 2013 under Section 18 of the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act” (Stanley, Michelle, and Kelly Gudgeon).

(Aerial View of the Mine)

(Beginning of digging)
    Rio Tinto signed a “native title agreement with the traditional owners in 2011, four years before their native title claim received formal assent by the federal court” (Wahlquist, Calla). One year (2014) after they were given permission by the government in 2013 was when they finally started digging and mining. This is when they discovered some truly historical and amazing artifacts. What they found were many tools and objects used for grinding and pounding stones. They also found things like a bone sharpened into a tool and a 4,000-year-old piece of braided hair that, “DNA testing revealed were the direct ancestors of Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners living today” (Wahlquist, Calla).

(Digging in one of the caves)

    Then, in May of 2020, Rio Tinto blew up the 46,000-year-old sacred indigenous site in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia. "Juukan Gorge's shelters [are] nine-times older than Stonehenge, 23-times older than the Colosseum and 75-times older than Machu Picchu," (Watson, Angus, and Ben Westcott).

After they blew the site up there were many conflicts that arose. There were 2 cave systems that were destroyed that had tens of thousands of years’ worth of human history and there were descendants/people of lineage that were enraged when they heard of this. The traditional owners and ancestors of the land are very upset with Rio Tinto and they are also upset with the system and government. The traditional owners didn’t know about the blast and only fund out by accident. “’Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land,’ said John Ashburton, chair of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama Land Committee” (Stanley, Michelle, and Kelly Gudgeon). They said the government does not account for new information they just keep using the old laws.

(Cave before blast)
(Cave after blast)

The old law called the WA Aboriginal Heritage Act (AHA) was passed in 1972. According to, the AHA “…protects all Aboriginal heritage sites in Western Australia, whether or not they are registered with the department”. This includes Aboriginal sites, remains, and objects. If there is any sign of Aboriginal descent at all, it is considered protected. This includes ritual/ceremonial sites. “There are currently 80 Protected Areas in Western Australia” ( Permission is required and granted from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs for any activity which can potentially negatively impact Aboriginal heritage sites. “Under the AHA, Aboriginal sites of outstanding importance may be declared Protected Areas. The AHA also provides protection for Aboriginal objects” ( According to Douglas Smith the Act was, “drafted in 1972 to favour mining proponents”. So, this is easy to understand why the ancestors and Indigenous would be very upset with the government over this. As a result, there were alliances formed among the Indigenous leaders. They want to have these alliances to prevent future destruction of their heritage. “The First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance is made up of Aboriginal Land Councils, Native Title Representative Bodies and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Organisations.” (Smith, Douglas). The Alliance does not consider Rio Tinto to be the “leading miner in building positive relationships with Aboriginal peoples” (Smith, Douglas) in Australia anymore. The people/landowners managed to get the government to review the act starting in 2012, but they weren’t able to get anything drafted until September 2, 2020.

The new bill, the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Bill, that was drafted early September 2020 is “about valuing and protecting Aboriginal cultural heritage and managing activities that may harm that heritage” (King, Rachael, et al). The purpose of the bill is to recognize the Aboriginal cultural heritage importance to the community. “However, the Bill also recognises that there may be activities which benefit the community that have the potential to harm Aboriginal cultural heritage and that outcomes must be balanced and beneficial for both Aboriginal people and the wider Western Australian community” (King, Rachael, et al). Within this bill they redefined and widened the definition of what it means to be of Aboriginal cultural heritage, they created the Aboriginal Cultural Heritage Directory and Council, they also removed section 18 of the AHA, and they added offences and penalties for causing harm to Aboriginal heritage sites/culture.

            Besides Rio Tinto’s incident in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia, there was another controversy in Papua New Guinea, Australia. Specifically, relating to a mine Rio Tinto abandoned 20 years ago. They are facing accusations for this mine and people are saying it’s leaking poisonous waste into their rivers. Over 150 people have complained, and more than 12,000 peoples’ health have been affected by the waste. “The Panguna mine was one of the region's biggest for copper and gold in the 1970s and 1980s, but widespread anger among local communities over environmental damage and distribution of profits forced its closure more than two decades ago” ( Rio Tinto ended up giving up its’ stake in the mine to the Australian government 4 years ago after all this. Natives think that Rio Tinto should take responsibility and clean up their mess they left.


Between both controversies in Juukan Gorge, Western Australia and Papua New Guinea, Australia there was a lot of heat coming from all directions. CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques of Rio Tinto decided it would be best if he resigned after he faced a lot of pressure from authorities and investors. “Jacques will leave once his successor is chosen or at the end of next March, whichever date comes first, according to the company” (He, Laura, and Angus Watson). Chris Salisbury, head of the iron ore business, and Simone Niven, group executive for corporate relations are the 2 senior executives that stepped down as well. Salisbury is stepping down from his position immediately and will leave the company at the end of the year. Niven will also exit at the end of December. According to, on September 11, 2020 Rio Tinto’s stock went down by 1% in Sydney, Australia from the Friday before (September 4, 2020). The three executives who stepped down have already been penalized a combined £3.8 million (roughly $5 million USD) in cut bonuses. Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said, "We are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation…” (He, Laura, and Angus Watson).


            Individualism, sometimes referred to as the economic theory, is about businesses. Specifically, that their only goal is to maximize profits for stockholders and owners as long as it’s within the law. The moral minimum “Economic Model” of business ethics has three distinctions: not harming, preventing harm, and doing good. Not harming anyone is the biggest distinction, but the other two are optional.

In relation to the Rio Tinto controversy an individualist would agree that there was nothing wrong with what happened on the side of profiting within the law. This is because Rio Tinto mining was only just trying to find iron ore in Juukan Gorge, Australia and they did not directly or physically harm any human being, nor did they break the law. The artifacts were just damaged. They were mining to maximize profits and doing so legally. The law in place, WA Aboriginal Heritage Act, did not declare Juukan Gorge, Australia as a protected site, so that is why they were granted permission to mine there. Rio Tinto took all necessary legal precautions and followed the necessary steps they needed to take to be able to mine there.

In the beginning Rio Tinto acted in a way to benefit the stakeholders. They followed the laws so that the stakeholders would not receive any backlash and they even waited a whole year from when they got permission from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs to when they actually started digging. It was 7 years after they got permission from the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs that they actually used explosives to blow up the site. They followed the rules set forth and required so that they could profit from the mining of the iron ore. However, they did not foresee that the indigenous landowners and ancestors of the Aboriginal land would be so upset and enraged with their land being destroyed. As a result, by the end of the controversy a CEO and 2 senior executives had to step down and Rio Tinto’s popularity/status in Australia was tarnished. Rio Tinto even ended up giving up its’ stake in the Papua New Guinea, Australia mine to the Australian government. So, in the end the stakeholders were not benefitted or profited. They even had to pay a collective amount of $5 million in fines that were taken out of their bonuses before they left their positions.


            Utilitarianism involves everything about life and business. Utilitarian’s are concerned with actions and consequences. It is about looking at the consequences of an action and determining if it would maximize happiness for the overall good. Within utilitarianism there is the principle of utility. The principle of utility states that one should maximize happiness in all beings (yourself and others) and should include all long-term consequences. A utilitarian might be alright with lying and stealing if it makes a group of people happy as a result.

In relation to Rio Tinto’s controversy, a utilitarian would not agree with what Rio Tinto did. There were many people outraged and very unhappy with their company and the Australian government. The indigenous landowners and ancestors of the Aboriginal sites that were blown up were very upset and unhappy with the situation. They felt their heritage was disrespected and destroyed. There was nothing good to come out of this situation for them.

The stakeholders were unhappy in the end too. The company received a lot of backlash from not just the descendants of the Aboriginal sites/heritage, but also the media. So, the stakeholders were under direct fire from a lot of different groups and it can be seen that they would be unhappy with the stress and pressure. The three executive that ended up stepping down were unhappy in the end. They lost their jobs and they had to pay fines of $5 million that were taken directly out of their bonuses. Again, they even had to give up their stake in the Papua New Guinea, Australia mine to the Australian government, which makes stakeholders unhappy. So, this action of blowing up the mine created negative outcomes that overall made people unhappy and had long lasting negative consequences that outweighed the positives for the stakeholders.


            Kantianism is about acting rationally, logically, consistently and treating others with respect. Happiness isn’t something necessary here like with utilitarianism. Kantians believe that it is wrong to lie, steal, manipulate, deceive, and murder no matter if the outcome makes someone happy or upset. Kantians are concerned with Goodwill and good intentions. Kantians are motivated within and treat others with respect and dignity, they don’t use others, and have self-respect. The formula of humanity is about treating another person/thing as an end instead of a mere means. This means that one treats others as an end; something valuable in itself rather than treating them as a mere means. Treating someone as a mere means denotes that one is treating them as something valuable as a way to get something else. So, in other words Kantians would say don’t use someone as a way to get something else out of it. There are three kinds of motivations: self-interest, character or sympathy, and duty or moral law. According to Kant, the only one that is morally “praiseworthy” would be the duty or moral law. The duty or moral law is referring to doing what is right because it is the right thing to do.

            A Kantian would not agree with Rio Tinto blowing up the Aboriginal site. This is because Rio Tinto was using the land/caves to make a profit. They did not use the caves to do research or help anyone they just destroyed them. They did not view the caves as something valuable in itself. They viewed the caves as a way to make a profit. They viewed the land as a mere means rather than seeing it as an end in itself. This is a poor example of having good intentions by any means. They did not respect the indigenous landowners or the descendants of the Aboriginal heritage. It can even be said that Rio Tinto deceived the landowners and ancestors. They led them to believe that the land they were mining on was not of Aboriginal descent and did not have any traces of the heritage, when in reality they did have traces of the heritage and artifacts were found. Rio Tinto did not follow the motivation of duty or moral law. They did what they did for profit, they did not do what was right because it is right thing to do.

Virtue Theory

            Virtue theory or virtue ethics involves personal morality and individual character. It focuses on one’s personal character. It helps us to understand in depth all life within business. The virtues of business/The Cardinal Virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. None of these virtues come without the others. It is all or none. Prudence is governing oneself by use of reason. Justice is the will and doing what is fair, reasonable, and right. Fortitude or courage is risk-taking and the willingness to take a stand for what is right. Temperance attempts to keep us from excess; how far we can act on our desires.

            In relation to the controversy with Rio Tinto, a virtue theorist would say that the actions presented were not moral or ethical and it showed the company’s true character. In looking at the case it is easy to see that Rio Tinto did not have the Cardinal Virtues. If one looks specifically to the CEO who had stepped down, he obviously did not show prudence, justice, courage, or temperance. He didn’t use any reason, good judgement, and wasn’t cautious when making business decisions. If he was, then he would have seen that blowing up these Aboriginal sites was not right and not a good judgement call. The CEO and other executives must have seen this coming since situations like these with heritage are so sensitive. Yet they did not have fortitude or courage to take a stand for what was right. In the 6 years between when they found the artifacts until they actually blew up the site would have been a great time for someone to step up and speak up for what is right. Yet there is no account here of anyone trying to stop this from happening. Rio Tinto and the executives also did not express any temperance. Instead of stopping themselves from moving forward and blowing up the Aboriginal site/caves, they let greed consume them and they couldn’t hold themselves back. They let themselves act on their desire to profit and make lots of money.

Justified Ethics Evaluation

            In my opinion, Rio Tinto was in the wrong here even though they technically followed the law, and their actions were permissible. Even though their actions seemed permissible in the beginning, by the end of the controversy their actions were not morally correct and should not be permissible. They were acting out of greed and profit instead of having sympathy or temperance when it came to blowing up the mine. I believe that once Rio Tinto started digging in 2014 and found ancient artifacts that they should have not carried forward with the mining. They should have just stopped everything and should have wanted to preserve this history of Australia. It seems they did not care about the artifacts or their history. If they found artifacts there during their initial examination of the land, some over 4,000 years old, then why would they think it would be alright to blow up the rest of the artifacts that weren’t even dug up yet? Especially since there are many ancestors and indigenous landowners who are related to people that lived on the site. This can easily be seen as a touchy subject for people. How would you feel if someone blew up your great great great grandfathers’ old house just because it was in their way to make money? Basically, by Rio Tinto blowing up the site after finding artifacts shows that they did not really care about the descendants or their families who lived there 46,000 years ago. It showed that all they cared about was mining for that iron ore to make a profit. The company did not even pay any reparations or try to clean up the mess they left. All that happened was the 3 executives stepping down and they paid fines from their bonuses. So, all in all, Rio Tinto’s actions were permissible but not morally right.

Company Action Plan

            The issue with Rio Tinto was that they should have not blown up the Aboriginal site once they found the artifacts or any traces of Aboriginal culture/descent. They should’ve been able to recognize that this is a sensitive issue and should have respected the culture.

            So, a solution for Rio Tinto to apply to future situations would be to first fully and in depth do research on the piece of land that the are looking at to buy in order to mine. They should be physically going to these sites. Once they check the site out it would be best to then file necessary paperwork if there is nothing problematic that comes up in the initial examination of the site. Once all paperwork is accepted, then they can start digging. However, if a similar situation occurs where artifacts are found, then they should stop all further progress and contact authorities or the government to properly identify these artifacts. If they are something of significance, then it might be better to step back. Especially if it relates to someone’s culture/heritage. The potential fines/penalties and backlash that they would receive from every direction is not worth it in this situation. The cost would outweigh the profits. If the artifacts turn out to be nothing of significance, then they could continue to mine. Another thing to keep in mind here too is that in the beginning the company should start out slow with just digging and excavation because then they will have an easier time finding artifacts or traces of people if they are there. If they just start using dynamite, then whatever potentially was there would just get blown to a million pieces and there would be no way of saving the company from backlash if for some reason it turns out it was an important/historical site.

            According to Rio Tinto’s website their mission statement currently is, “Our strategy is to create superior value for shareholders by meeting our customers' needs, maximising cash from our world-class assets and allocating capital with discipline” ( I think their new mission statement should say something like; our strategy is to meet customer needs while balancing creating value for shareholders, maximizing cash, and respecting the land in which we operate on as well as the people who have lived there in the past. This makes it more personal and respectful of the people affected by their work and it can help in repairing their relationships with the people.

            Some core values Rio Tinto should have would be values like; having a balance and respect for the land they operate on, having sympathy and being aware of those affected by the company’s work, and to be disciplined and responsible in their research and processes. A way to ensure ethical productivity would be to have semi-annual meetings with employees and executives, to implement some new policies, and to adapt/update their current processes to ensure this problem does not happen again. The Rio Tinto mining company did fire 3 executives and it did help, but people still wanted reparations and for the company to clean up the messes they left behind. By Rio Tinto firing these executives it showed everyone that the company is taking this seriously. In order for Rio Tinto to bounce back and flourish again they should market in a way to show more emotion in what they are doing. They need to show that they care about to land and the people, and they need to show they respect them and would not deliberately destroy anything that is of significance to anyone. They should focus on their relationships with their customers and the Indigenous people/descendants of the Aboriginal heritage sites. They must repair the broken trust between Rio Tinto, the people/inhabitants, and the Australian government.

            The solution I have suggested will help Rio Tinto to be more profitable in the long run. If they were to keep on as they were, there would be more fines and penalties to come. The people would also reject them and not want them around. Which could result in them loosing more money than they are making, as well as loosing popularity within the business world and communities everywhere. If my plan were used it would create a better environment ethically within their company, which in turn would reflect out to the world.


He, Laura, and Angus Watson. “Rio Tinto CEO Resigns after Destruction of 46,000-Year-Old Sacred Indigenous Site.” CNN, Cable News Network, 11 Sept. 2020,

King, Rachael, et al. “Modernising WA's Approach to Aboriginal Cultural Heritage.” Corrs Chambers Westgarth, 13 Nov. 2020,

“Protection under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972.” Department of Planning, Lands, and Heritage, 20 Dec. 2018, Protection under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972

“Rio Tinto: Mining Giant Accused of Poisoning Rivers in Papua New Guinea.” BBC News, BBC, 29 Sept. 2020,

Rio Tinto,

Smith, Douglas. “Peak Indigenous Organisations Form to Protect Cultural Heritage.” NITV, 25 June 2020,

Sonal, Shruti, and Kirsty Needham. “Australia Begins Probe Into Rio's Destruction of Aboriginal Site.” Edited by Michael Perry, U.S. News & World Report, U.S. News & World Report, 18 June 2020,

Stanley, Michelle, and Kelly Gudgeon. “Pilbara Mining Blast Confirmed to Have Destroyed 46,000yo Cultural Sites.” ABC News, ABC News, 26 May 2020,

Wahlquist, Calla. “Rio Tinto Blasts 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site to Expand Iron Ore Mine.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 May 2020,

Watson, Angus, and Ben Westcott. “Rio Tinto: Miner Apologizes for Blowing up 46,000-Year-Old Sacred Site.” CNN, Cable News Network, 1 June 2020,

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