Shareholder group seeks Fortescue moratorium on Australian cultural site damage

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australia's Fortescue Metals Group FMG.AX said on Thursday that it would not support a shareholder resolution that urged it to halt mining activities that could damage Aboriginal cultural heritage sites because it already has proper procedures in place.

FILE PHOTO: An autonomous truck readies to pick up a load of iron ore at Australia's Fortescue Metals Group (FMG) Chichester Hub, which includes the Christmas Creek iron ore mine, in the Pilbara region, located southeast of the coastal town of Port Hedland in Western Australia, November 29, 2018. REUTERS/Melanie Burton

A shareholder group backed by Aboriginal leaders on Thursday urged Fortescue to commit not to damage or disturb cultural heritage sites and lift any confidentiality provisions for traditional owners.

The shareholder resolution comes amid heightened focus on agreements between Australia's iron ore majors and Aboriginal groups, after rival Rio Tinto RIO.AX legally blew up a rock shelter in May that showed 46,000 years of human habitation, against the wishes of the traditional owners.

The resolution asks the world’s fourth-largest iron ore miner to adopt a moratorium on activities that may impact the sacred sites until relevant Australian laws are strengthened, the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility said in a statement.

Fortescue would not support the moratorium, Chief Executive Elizabeth Gaines said, because it would disempower local Aboriginal people and limit the positive contribution the mining industry was making to state and national economies.

“Fortescue acts with transparency and in good faith at all times” she said, adding that Fortescue works closely with traditional owners to avoid significant sites and has detailed processes for heritage surveys, consultation, project planning, impact mitigation and negotiation.

“We do not have heritage ‘gag order’ clauses in our agreements and Aboriginal groups are free and open to disagree and publicly voice their concerns.”

ACCR’s resolution, to be tabled at Fortescue’s Nov. 11 annual general meeting, is backed by the First Nations Heritage Protection Alliance, a coalition of more than 20 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups and leaders from across Australia.

Fortescue is reviewing its mining plans in Western Australia after an Indigenous group, the Wintawari Guruma, said they were unhappy with Fortescue’s treatment of a sacred site and they were worried about others, including a 60,000 year-old rock shelter.

The activist investor previously made a similar request to fellow iron ore miner BHP Group Ltd BHP.AX.

Reporting by Rashmi Ashok in Bengaluru; Editing by Jaqueline Wong, Richard Pullin and Kim Coghill