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RTZ meeting ends in walkout by protesters

About 30 representatives of indigenous groups from across the world walked out of RTZ's annual general meeting in central London yesterday after Sir Derek Birkin, the chairman, barred further questions from the floor about the company's mining activities.

The protest came shortly after one environmental activist attempted to storm the podium where the massed ranks of RTZ's board were assembled.

He accused RTZ, the world's largest mining company, of "crimes against the planet" before he was collared by security guards and dragged from the QEII Conference Centre in Westminster.

The campaigners failed to stop Sir Derek from winding up the two-hour meeting by calling for a poll in an effort to extend the question-and- answer session. Sir Derek used proxy votes in respect of 354 million shares out of the 355 million represented in the hall to quash the motion.

"That's democracy for you," moaned one shareholder. The meeting then degenerated into an undignified shouting match while the rest of the votes were counted.

The rowdy end was at odds with the rest of proceedings, which were more like a debate at the United Nations than the soporific, rubber-stamping affair that passes for annual shareholder gatherings these days.

Speakers came from Papua New Guinea, Colombia, Madagascar and the US to air their views on the impact RTZ and its associates' mining operations, both existing and proposed, are having on local habitats and communities.

They were joined by London-based pressure groups Friends of the Earth, Survival and the World Development Movement, which demonstrated outside the venue on issues including RTZ's potential involvement in a Madagascar mineral sands project and its involvement with Grasberg, the copper-gold mines located in Indonesia's Irian Jaya highlands.

The World Development Movement is calling on RTZ to withdraw its pounds 500m investment in the expansion of the Grasberg mine, claiming it will lead to "irretrievable damage to the environment". The mine, which is owned by Freeport, a US mining company where RTZ has a 12 per cent stake, was closed last month for three days following a series of riots by workers, most of whom come from outside the Irian Jaya area.

Robert Wilson, chief executive, rejected allegations that Freeport was involved in human rights abuses in the area and reiterated RTZ's commitment to work with local communities, "particularly where indigenous people are involved, so that even when the mine has finally closed we have helped to sustain their chosen way of life".

None of this reassured the campaigners. One shareholder, who travelled from Nevada claiming indigenous families had been removed from a reservation to allow RTZ to mine for gold, didn't even bother to put a question to the board. "I already know all the answers," she said.