A coalition of investors managing assets worth US$10 trillion has written to Australian and international mining firms demanding assurances over their relations with Indigenous communities after Rio Tinto destroyed a sacred site.
Rio Tinto sparked outrage after blasting a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site in the Juukan Gorge area of Australia's ore-rich Pilbara region in May -- against the wishes of traditional landowners.
Public outcry and investor revolt forced the mining giant's CEO and two top officials to resign, and investors are again seeking to leverage their heft to shape the actions of other miners.
The 64 long-term institutional investors -- including Fidelity, Skandia and Aviva and leading local pension funds -- want to review major mining companies' approach to indigenous communities, calling on the firms to provide "a genuine explanation... rather than boiler plate information".
In a letter dated October 27, the investors said they needed to have "real confidence" in how the sector obtains and maintains its "social license" to operate with First Nations and Indigenous peoples.
The letter to 78 miners, including Rio Tinto, BHP, Anglo-American and Vale SA, said the Juukan Gorge incident highlighted the "significant risk for investors" if relationships with traditional landowners are not handled properly.
"We believe that investment risk exists where there is a mismatch between a company's stated approach to relationships with First Nations and Indigenous communities and what happens in practice," the letter states.
The site had contained some of the oldest Aboriginal artifacts ever found in Australia and was considered sacred by Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people of Western Australia.
Though Rio Tinto had permission from the state government to blast in the area, the PKKP have said they warned that the placement of some explosives would destroy two heritage rock shelters.
Adam Matthews, ethics director at signatory Church of England Pensions Board, said the event had "exposed a systemic issue across the mining sector" as did tailings dam collapses in 2015 and 2019 in Brazil which killed hundreds.
"On each occasion the mining sector further erodes the trust in its social license to operate," he said.
While good practice does exist in the industry, Matthews said, "investors need to better understand the practices of companies to be able to ensure best practice becomes the minimum operating standard on this issue as with many others".