Monday, December 7, 2020

Rio Tinto Destruction of Aboriginal Sites Sparks Controversy (May 2020)

        One of the world's top metals and mining corporations is now receiving backlash due the destruction of several heritage sites. Rio Tinto is a very well known company and has been very reliable throughout their time when it comes to their work. In May of 2020, they went through with the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves which left many stakeholders feeling angry and betrayed. 

Looking at this case through the main ethical theories, we see that Rio Tinto can be assessed in a number of ways based on their actions. Individualism has to do with maximizing profit for the people involved but to do so within the law. Rio Tinto was only looking to maximize profit. They decided that in order to make the most amount of money, they would have to violate the laws set against what they were doing. Ultimately they violated their laws therefore violating an individualistic theory. The next theory is Utilitarianism which its main purpose is to maximize happiness for all. After the events took place, Rio Tinto were the only ones happy because they profited and got what they wanted. This left stakeholders unhappy and left people not being able to trust Rio Tinto because they didn’t think about others' happiness. A kantian would disagree with the case because they used the site as a mere means. They used the site only to get what they needed to profit and didn’t think about the consequences for anyone else. The final ethical theory is virtue theory. Rio Tinto violated several virtues such as prudence and self control. They were unable to follow these virtues and added to this case for being unethical. Ultimately Rio Tinto didn’t take into account others surrounding the case and did not abide by their own rules and regulations that they set as a corporation.

Case Controversy

The company Rio Tinto is the world’s second largest corporation known for mining and processing certain resources. Founded in 1873 by Scottish entrepreneur Hugh Matheson, transformed the company to be successful which had been around since the ancient Greeks and Romans. Since then, they have turned themselves into one of the top companies when it comes to copper production. When it comes to the present day, Rio Tinto now focuses on producing “iron ore for steel, aluminium for cars and smartphones, copper for wind turbines, diamonds that set the standard for “responsible”, titanium for house” (RioTinto). 

In 1989, Rio Tinto became one of the top producers of copper around the world and continues to hold one of those top spots in 2020. Rio Tinto is a company which surrounds itself and is heavily influenced by the environment. There are certain rules and regulations like many corporations that they must respect and abide by. They have stated that, “We want to make sure our partnerships have real impact for all parties, so we engage in projects with only a small, purposefully selected number of partners at a time” (Rio Tinto). They do this in order to ensure that everyone is following certain guidelines to make sure that anyone involved in one of their operations is happy. With all this said, recently, Rio Tinto has been under fire for violating some of their very own guidelines and rules that they put out themselves.

On May 24, 2020, the Juukan Gorge caves were destroyed after nearly a decade of back and forth battling between the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people who were trying to preserve the site. A report that was published after the incident showed that Rio Tinto failed to meet their own regulations and rules “in relation to the responsible management and protection of cultural heritage” (He, Watson, CNN). The reason why this event was so destructive was because of the “significant archeological value and deep cultural meaning for Aboriginal people” (He, Watson, CNN).


Before destruction of Juukan Gorge Caves                        Aftermath of Juukan Gorge Caves

To fully understand the reasoning behind the destruction of these caves and why people were as upset as they were, we have to go back in time to see how the events before led to the situation we are currently in. The origins of this case was dated back to 2013. Just like in the article that CNN had written, there had been an outlasting battle for nearly 7 years to destroy the caves.

When first looking into the site, Rio Tinto had determined that in order to be able to mine and retrieve what they needed, they knew that the caves would have to be altered in some way or another. By 2014, they had determined that the site was ready to be mined as entered in their system. Rio Tinto’s iron ore chief Chris Salisbury who inevitably lost his job due to the incident stated “our systems weren’t helping us because we believed that Juukan 1 and 2, that we had consent to mine that area, were removed from the mine planning system as sites, per se,” (May, Rio Tinto also said that when they were first introduced to the site, they had marked it down as a “heritage site” meaning that they were not to mess with the land. They stated that there was a problem in their system that didn’t notify miners. Because of this, they claimed it was a misunderstanding from the system and had ultimately failed them.

Fast forward to 2020 when the destruction of the caves actually took place, we find out that the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura or (PKKP) were notified only days before the actual destruction took place.


Looking at the stakeholders in this case, it is clear that many were affected and had a say in how the company acted and what will need to be done going forward after an incident like this. One of the biggest stakeholders affected was CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques who resigned due to increasing pressure from investors. As of right now, he remains CEO until someone is chosen to replace him on or before March of 2021.

    Jean-Sébastien Jacques (CEO of Rio Tinto)


Following the destruction of the 46,000 year old site, Rio Tinto acknowledged that "significant stakeholders have expressed concerns about executive accountability for the failings identified” (He, Watson, CNN). As mentioned earlier, those people who were most concerned and directly affected were the PKKP. After the destruction took place, there were several different findings from their ancestors as well as other sacred artifacts. The PKKP have since made clear the distress that the destruction has caused and the director Burchell Hayes stated “That site, for us, that’s where our ancestors were occupying their traditional land” (

As we know with every company, there are customers in order to use their product. Unfortunately, the destruction caused by Rio Tinto has lost the trust of people in the company. Rio Tinto has since apologized and tried to make it clear that they understand that they have lost faith from people who trust their company and know that it will take time to prove that they are indeed a reliable corporation.


Looking at what Rio Tinto did, we can conclude that they went against the basic principles of individualism. Milton Friedman’s individualism states,  “The only goal of business is to profit, so the only obligation that the business person has is to maximize profit for the owner or the stockholders within the law of the land”. Based on Friedman’s individualism alone, we see that in this situation, Rio Tinto ended up profiting off of the job they did but went against their own rules and laws established within their own organization.

When Rio Tinto decided to destroy a sacred heritage site, they were looking to profit. When they first learned about the resources within the site, they realized there would be a great benefit to mining out and retrieving all of these resources. The problem was that in order to get to what they needed, they had to destroy a heritage site which had an enormous amount of cultural and archaeological significance to the people around the area. Again as individualism is explained, the purpose is to profit within the law. Now technically speaking, Rio Tinto did not break any law set by the government but they went against their own laws that they set within their company guidelines. If we look at Rio Tinto’s company guidelines, we find that based on the events that took place, it is clear that they violated their own laws and regulations.


Utilitarians looking at this case would clearly disagree with the actions that Rio Tinto took during the destruction of the sacred site. The main point of a utilitarian is to maximize happiness for all. By studying this case, we see how Rio Tinto violated this because in the end, they were the only ones that came out of it happy ultimately leaving everyone around them disappointed and frustrated.

When understanding utilitarianism, there are several traditions within the concept. One of those important traditions is described as, “based on the importance of ethical principles and rights, directs us to decide on the basis of moral principles such as keeping your promises or giving people what they deserve”(DesJardins 24). This quote really touches on the main points that Rio Tinto failed to abide by. 

Rio Tinto did not ensure the happiness for others by going against their promise and giving people what they deserve. In order for Rio Tinto to go ahead and make their profit, they had to act unethically in order to achieve happiness for themselves. This made many of their stakeholders unhappy and even resulted in the resignation of one of their CEO’s. Ultimately the corporation only ensured happiness to themselves and not for everyone as a direct result from the destruction of the sacred land.


Like Utilitarianism, Kantians would also disagree with Rio Tinto based on the actions that took place during this case. In order to understand how a Kantian would make a decision based on a situation, we have to understand why they would or wouldn’t be okay with it due to the circumstances that we are presented with. Also, Kantians do not look at a situation based on consequences. This is where Kantianism and Utilitarianism differ. “Utilitarianism is an ethical tradition that directs us to make decisions based on the overall consequences of our acts” (DesJardins 24). As stated earlier, Kantian don't look at the consequences but rather the will of the person who caused the action.

One of the most important claims that Kantians make is the formula of humanity. The formula of humanity states that we must treat all people as an end and never solely as a means. What this theory really wants us to understand is that as a Kantian, we should treat people equally with respect. Going against the formula of humanity shows us that the way people treat each other is just downright unethical and wrong.

Rio Tinto violated the formula of humanity by only using the destruction of the sacred caves as a means only. Rio Tinto used the land as a mere means because their ultimate goal was to make a significant profit based on the resources. By doing this, they sacrificed using the land as a means to an end and only used it as a mere means. Kant would look at the person behind the action and conclude that they were not treating others equally and their clear goal was to use the land as a means to get what they wanted.

Virtue Theory

Looking at this case from a virtue theory perspective, we can see how Rio Tinto violated some key concepts within the theory itself. Virtue Theory is based on four key principles which include prudence, courage, self control and justice. Rio Tinto violated several of these and after reviewing the case, we know that they didn’t practice certain virtues such as these.

Prudence has to do with being able to make the right decisions all the time.This case was a clear example of the wrong decisions made and Rio Tinto even admitted themselves that they made poor decisions. Courage is arguably the most important virtue as you can’t have the others without it. Courage is about taking risks but Rio Tinto took too big of a risk by only focusing on making a profit. Clearly after looking back at the case, the risk was not worth it due to the backlash they got from the people they hurt.

The last two principles include self control and justice. Rio Tinto was not able to control themselves enough in this case to back off and realize that they probably shouldn’t mess with a historical area even though they might lose money. Although they would take a hit in the end, it would be the right thing to do and would affect everyone else in a positive way. The last virtue is justice. This has to do with practicing empathy, friendship and mercy. After the events of the case had taken place and people had reacted to it, Rio Tinto ended up apologizing. This was an attempt to try and make things right as well as to get people to understand that they know that they did not act accordingly.


Now that I have done thorough research and tried to look at everything that has transpired within the case, I believe that there were certain times where Rio Tinto was unethical. The major issue in the case was that in order for them to get the material to make a profit, they had to destroy several historical caves and its surroundings in order to get to what they needed. Rio Tinto claimed that they had decided they wouldn’t go through with it and had it written on their software but when the time came, workers were not notified to not go through with the destruction.

The main issue that I saw from this case was that they should have never sacrificed others land to get what they want. This goes against basic ethics but more importantly it violated Rio Tinto’s own rules. They claim that the system was the reason for the failure. If that is indeed true, it is a lesson for them going forward and they need to be much more careful to ensure an event like this never takes place again.

Action Plan

Now that the events taking place in May have gone and passed, Rio Tinto has a lot of work to do going forward to make amends to each stakeholder involved. They also have to focus on their failed system which according to Rio Tinto was the reason why they weren’t able to act accordingly on the case. There are several actions that need to be taken in order to come back from an event that had an impact like this.

When looking at the stakeholders, the most important ones involved the people who lived around the heritage sites and cherished the historical value that they had of past lives. Rio Tinto has come out and apologized but there should be a plan to give back to the specific community involved. Another key group that Rio Tinto affected is the consumers. After this event took place, a large amount of trust was lost from the corporation. The only way to gain back trust is over a long period of time where they can demonstrate that their company does not stand by what they did and has proven that they do not represent what they did back in May. When it came to the decision to actually go forth with the destruction, they stated after the case that there was a failure in their system to alert workers to not act on the site. This means that they need to be more careful going forward and potentially need a new technology system to prevent things like this from happening.

There are actions that need to be taken going forward that Rio Tinto hasn’t done yet but they have taken a few measures themselves. One of the head CEO’s of the corporation has announced his resignation as well as two other executives of the company. Along with this they have made numerous apologies expressing empathy for the people involved and have understood that it will take time for them to be a trusted corporation again.

D Manning


DesJardins, Joseph R. An Introduction to Business Ethics. McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2014.

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,

“History.” We Produce Materials Essential to Human Progress,

May, Rebecca Le. “Rio Tinto Cave Blast Inquiry: Site Significance 'Removed from System'.” NewsComAu, NCA NewsWire, 16 Oct. 2020, 2013, Rio Tinto determined the caves would,were found the following year, they were removed.

Reuters. “Rio Tinto Apologises For Blowing Up 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site.” HuffPost Australia, HuffPost Australia, 1 June 2020,

“Rio Tinto Apologises for Blowing up 46,000-Year-Old Aboriginal Site.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 1 June 2020,

“Rio Tinto Condemned by Shareholders for Seeking Legal Advice before Blowing up Juukan Gorge.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Sept. 2020,

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

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