Green lobby ambushes Rio Tinto

RIO TINTO shareholders expecting a discussion of the mining giant's financial affairs at its annual meeting yesterday listened to a succession of speeches from lobby groups about the group's environmental and labour- relations policies.

In a 90-minute question-and-answer session, only three shareholders avoided ethical issues. They addressed the uncontroversial matters of hedging for gold-price fluctuations, consolidation in the mining sector, and the millennium bug.

The rest of the session was given over to lobbyists who had dressed in suit and tie, making it hard for Robert Wilson, chairman, to pick out shareholders with straightforward questions about future earnings growth.

The first question set the tone, asking why the group's Health and Safety report was missing. Mr Wilson admitted that it was not ready. Embarrassing, given that minutes earlier Leon Davis, chief executive, had spoken of the Rio Tinto's commitment to eliminating fatalities in its operations.

There followed questions from Friends of the Earth, the tribespeople of Irian Jaya, the World Development Movement, miners' representatives from the group's Australian operations, and the Trades Union Congress, among others. Richard Giordano, chairman of energy group BG and Rio Tinto's non-executive director responsible for social and environmental accountability, was silent throughout.

Mr Wilson admitted that the group was contractually obliged to make facilities, in which it has a minority stake, available to the Indonesian military.

Barry Coates, director of the World Development Movement, said: "Rio Tinto is starting to address some of the ethical issues in Indonesia but we want it to use its influence to prevent human rights abuses in Western Papua. There's a link between ethical performance and profitability."

Mr Wilson seemed to have chosen a financially-minded question when one shareholder declared she had a question about US mining operations. He had instead selected a grilling on Rio Tinto's discussions with the Western Shoshone tribe over land rights in Nevada.

Earlier, Mr Wilson had warned he could add no good news to reports about current trading, saying. "1999 will clearly be another difficult year for the company".