Rio Tinto i Huelva, the first of the disasters

How much does it cost to destroy an aboriginal shrine more than 46 billion years old? For those affected, “incalculable.” For those responsible – the company Rio Tinto, the third largest mining company in the world – a handful of resignations. Its executive director, the Frenchman Jean-Sébastien Jacques, the head of the management of the iron mines, Chris Salisbury, and the head of communications, Simone Niven, were forced to take a step to the side this September fruit of an internal investigation by the company showing that Rio Tinto had not acted adequately to prevent the destruction of an ancient Aboriginal space in north-eastern Australia.

“It is a mistake and we are determined to ensure that such a fact is not repeated,” said the president of the mining giant, Simon Thompson. Rio Tinto, however, is not the first time it has been seen in the midst of a conflict of this nature and, in fact, if you look in its origins, just over 200 kilometers from Catalonia there is a living memory of one of his first footprints.

The passage through Spain

Although today the company Rio Tinto has no activity in Spain, its history is closely linked to Andalusia. In 1873, British contractors bought the copper mines of Riotinto, in Huelva, and set up the British consortium Rio Tinto Company Limited (RTCL) -founder of the current Rio Tinto Group-. “It was public land and usually when there is a mining concession only the exploitation rights of the land are transferred. In this case, however, the company bought the land, the subsoil and the airspace for 93 million pesetas ”, explains Miguel Ángel Collado, historian of the University of Huelva. For the mining people, the landing of the company meant a radical change. First, by the use of “very intensive” extraction methods.

So much so that they caused the deforestation of the area, the removal of the Mediterranean forest and the arrival of sulfur smoke in the air, which caused acid rain, as the company placed large amounts of pyrite stones on a hot base and burned them, which gave off a lethal smoke for vegetation, explains Collado, who adds that by the late 1980s the population was already protesting against the fumes. This, however, was the most economical way to separate the metal that the company sold from the rest of the stones, which could not be marketed, the historian explains.

On the other hand, the transformation was also social. The small houses became colonies with populations throughout the state and also in Portugal – in 1930 about 9,000 miners worked there – and new customs such as football arrived – English businessmen settled in the village created the 1878 the English Club, the first in the state.

Formally, the company stopped operating in Huelva in 1954, although it merged with Spanish capital, explains Collado, and therefore there is no specific date when the company ceased to have a relevant role in Huelva. Rio Tinto Group has pointed out to ARA that since the seventies it no longer has any connection with Huelva. This newspaper has also asked the company about its trajectory in the region, but has not received an answer.

“This is practically a desert,” says Collado. His legacy for Andalusian lands was the prelude to some environmental conflicts that years later have affected the Riotinto mining basin.

From Huelva to Indonesia

Rio Tinto Company Limited merged with other companies, with which it created the Australian giant Rio Tinto Group and diversified its activities. Today it is the largest coal mining company in the world, with a presence in 36 countries, including Canada, Madagascar, South Africa and Indonesia.

The company has 60 active mining projects and some have been immersed in environmental conflicts. In Papua New Guinea they were forced to close a mine in 1989 for the use of chemicals that polluted the air and caused disease in the population. Here, too, the company was pressured in 2018 to leave the shareholding of the second largest copper mine in the world, the Grasberg mine, due to the pollution of a river and the disappearance of much of the fish. Conflicts, however, have also been labor. In 1990 the company eliminated unions and collective bargaining from Australian mines.

However, Rio Tinto is one of the 100 companies that generates the most greenhouse gases and the same company acknowledged in 2016 that it had produced 32 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. Since 2018, part of the shareholders have been pressuring the mining giant to adapt to the rules set by the Paris Agreement.