Amidst graduation festivities, protesters meet with mining exec
By Andrew Sheeler
Sun Star Reporter
It was the first week of May. The spring semester was drawing to an end and graduating students were counting down the days before they would be receiving their degrees. Summer had almost arrived and the trees weren’t the only things covered in green. The UAF campus had been covered with bright green flyers detailing a list of grievances against Tom Albanese, UAF alum, CEO of Rio Tinto, and the man chosen to give the commencement address to the 2010 UAF graduates. Rio Tinto is the second largest mining company in the world and not without its controversy. Albanese, perhaps the most financially successful graduate in UAF history, has himself attracted the ire of union supporters and environmentalists alike. So when Albanese came to the Carlson Center to offer his words UAF’s most recent graduating class, he was greeted by roughly two dozen protesters, including UAF students, faculty, and members of the general public.
The protest itself has been about two weeks in the planning. Shortly after learning about Albanese’ selection, a Facebook group called “Google Rio Tinto” was formed and flyers detailing alleged abuses perpetrated by Albanese in his time as Rio Tinto chief were put up across campus. As some protesters wore sandwich boards covered in anti-Rio Tinto flyers outside the Wood Center, others operated a table inside where they talked about union grievances and alleged human rights abuses involving Rio Tinto. Throughout this time, UAF higher-ups such as Mike Sfraga, Vice Chancellor for Students, and Jake Poole, Vice Chancellor for University Advancement, offered their encouragement to the students leading the effort.
After two weeks of build-up leading to the graduation protest, there was a surprising turn of events at the graduation rehearsal the night before. Nanae Ito, a graduating sociology student, was approached by two UAF officials and told that Albanese would like to meet her before the graduation ceremony. Ito agreed to the meeting. The next day, just an hour and a half before the graduation ceremony was to begin, Ito and Gloria Oseguera, a graduating political science student, met with Tom Albanese in the Pioneer Room of the Carlson Center.
Albanese sat alone on one side of the table, Ito and Oseguera sat on the other. Both students were wearing their graduation robes decorated with green ribbons representing protesting Rio Tinto. After thanking Albanese for meeting with them, Ito began firing away with a list of prepared questions. The subjects raised from the questions varied from Rio Tinto’s months-long dispute with a southern California borax miners union to the company’s treatment of indigenous peoples. When Ito finished her questions, Albanese jumped in saying, “You’ve gotta ask about Pebble!” Albanese then expressed a general disagreement with the way the mine has been handled so far. Albanese, whose company owns a 19 percent share in Anglo American, a company with a 50 percent share in the Pebble mine, said that he would like to see the mine be entirely underground, that more time should be taken to both determine the technological feasibility and environmental impact of the mine, and that more effort needed to be put into forming partnerships with the people most immediately effected by the mine, especially those whose ancestral homelands would be impacted. Albanese said that he had spoken with the CEO of Anglo American last week and had expressed his disagreement with their approach.
When the meeting was over, Ito asked Albanese if he would be willing to step outside and speak to the protesters outside. “Are they going to be civil?” Albanese asked. After Ito said they would, the entire group got up and went outside, followed by security and UAF officials. Outside of the Carlson Center it was Tom Albanese on one side and two dozen sign-wielding protesters on the other. Albanese largely repeated what he’d said inside for the benefit of the larger group, but answered some new questions about Rio Tinto’s engagements in Papua New Guinea and China. Albanese said that Rio Tinto had not been involved in Papua New Guinea since 1989, having left during political turmoil there and that the Rio Tinto execs who had been charged with bribery in China had all been fired. Finally Vice Chancellor Mike Sfraga stepped in to retrieve Albanese in preparation for the commencement speech. Before he left, the protesters expressed their gratitude for Albanese’s willingness to speak with them.
“It’s corporate spin,” said Sine Anahita, a sociology professor at UAF who was a part of the protest. Anahita said that Albanese’s decision to speak with the protesters was a sign of a successful protest but was dissatisfied with the answers Albanese had given. Vice Chancellor Jake Poole had a different take.
“I think it’s been great!” Poole said. Poole said that no other commencement speaker in his memory had ever drawn such a protest, but that it was “wonderful” for the students to express their opinions.
After Albanese went inside, the graduating students hurried inside to get in line, wearing the green ribbons prominently, and the protest numbers gradually dwindled. The protest was kept strictly outside, and Albanese’s commencement address went peacefully and with full applause from the assembled audience. If students objected to anything Albanese said, they opted to keep it to themselves in deference to the moment.