Rio Tinto: A Real-Life “Billy Jack” Villain

“Behind every great fortune,” Balzac wrote, “there is a crime.” That’s certainly true of the largest concentrations of wealth in the world today. The fortune of every billionaire, it’s safe to say, was amassed through some sort of crime. You don’t make that kind of money on the free market. And the holdings of every oil and mining company in the world are, in whole or in large part, the fruit of robbery and enclosure. When “small government conservatives” in legislative bodies say they favor protecting property rights, they mean the property rights of the robbers, not of those they robbed. Nowhere is this more evident than in Congress’s giveaway of Apache holy land at Oak Flat in Arizona to Resolution Copper Mining, a subsidiary of the Rio Tinto corporation.

Friends of Rio Tinto had previously tried to sneak in amendments to various bills that would quietly give the land to Rio Tinto, which has coveted its mineral wealth for years. Former Congressman Rick Renzi of Arizona went to prison on corruption charted resulting from a previous attempt. This time, it was Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake who attached the land-grab as a rider to the National “Defense” Authorization Act.

The copper mining operation will transform Oak Flat, a place Apaches go to pray, into a two-mile wide open pit.

It’s just as well the government gave the land away. Rio Tinto is the kind of corporation that hires death squads to terrorize local populations when bribing governments doesn’t work.

Rio Tinto is, without qualification, one of the most evil corporations in the world. It has colluded with repressive regimes going back to Franco’s use of troops to suppress strikes in Rio Tinto’s Spanish mines in the 1930s.

It’s a major player in the South African diamond industry and was a strong supporter of the Apartheid regime. In Namibia it ran uranium mines with what amounted to slave labor camps.

The company is the target of a lawsuit for crimes against humanity for using chemical defoliants, in a manner reminiscent of the US in Vietnam, to destroy the rain forest on Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, in the process of developing its Panguna copper and gold mining operation. It dumped billions of tons of toxic mine waste, polluting waters over a radius of dozens of miles and causing severe health problems to many. And when the local population rose up to forcibly close the mines, Rio Tinto supplied the government with vehicles and helicopters to transport troops to suppress the uprising; the ensuing ten-year military blockade resulted in 10,000 deaths. It followed the same pattern of forcible eviction, large-scale environmental devastation and pollution, and collusion with state military authorities to suppress popular uprisings in West Papua, Indonesia and Madagascar.

As you might expect from its heavy investment in copper mining, Rio Tinto also has a history of repressive behavior in the Andes, including close ties to the Pinochet regime in Chile.

In Cameroon, Rio Tinto is acting with the government to remove 28,000 people from their land to build a hydroelectric dam that will provide power for an aluminum smelter.

In Boron, California it has locked out borax miners and replaced them with scabs for refusing a contract that would turn them all into temporary workers without benefits.

And in its native Australia, it has led a mining industry lobbying campaign to nullify Aboriginal title to land — and forcibly removed Aboriginal communities in the course of is projects.

As Sue Boland put it (“Rio Tinto: founded on blood,” GreenLeft, Sept. 6, 2000), Rio Tinto’s record everywhere is the same: “land taken from indigenous people without compensation; workers prevented from freely organising in trade unions; destruction of the environment; and cosy relations with politicians, government officials and dictators.”

“Behind every great fortune is a crime.” And since the beginning of history, the state’s main function has been to assist the criminals, the robbers, in their crime. “Small government conservatives” are no exception.

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