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Rio Tinto CEO resigns over destruction of Aboriginal site

Rio Tinto announced the resignation of its CEO and two other top execs on Friday over the mining giant’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site to expand an iron ore mine in Australia.

The Anglo-Australian firm was facing a growing investor revolt over the destruction of the sacred site in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region – one of the earliest known locations occupied by Australia’s indigenous people.

Following a board investigation into the May 24 incident, Rio Tinto said CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques was stepping down “by mutual agreement” along with the chief of the company’s core iron ore division, Chris Salisbury, and corporate relations head Simone Niven.

“What happened at Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation,” chairman Simon Thompson said in a statement.

The cultural importance of Juukan Gorge was confirmed by an archaeological dig carried out at one of the caves – known as rock shelters – a year after Rio Tinto obtained approval to blast in the area.

The dig uncovered the oldest known example of bone tools in Australia – a sharpened kangaroo bone dating back 28,000 years – and a plaited-hair belt that DNA testing linked to indigenous people still living in the area.

An internal company review determined that “a series of decisions, actions and omissions over an extended period of time” preceded the choice to go ahead with the Juukan Gorge blasting despite concerns over the fate of the sacred Aboriginal site.

The company subsequently stripped millions of dollars in bonuses from the three executives.

But the firm’s shareholders and corporate responsibility bodies derided the move as insufficient and called for heads to roll.

Thompson acknowledged the investor anger on Friday, without disclosing the full details of the three executives’ departure terms. 

“We have listened to our stakeholders’ concerns that a lack of individual accountability undermines the Group’s ability to rebuild that trust and to move forward to implement the changes identified in the Board Review,” he said.

He also said Rio Tinto would work to “regain the trust” of the Pinikura and Puutu Kunti Kurrama Aboriginal (PKKP) communities, who are the traditional owners of the region.

‘Crucial first step’

The National Native Title Council, which represents indigenous landowners, welcomed what it called the “dismissal” of the Rio Tinto executives, but said such staff changes were “only the crucial first step”. 

“We hope this will send a strong message to the whole mining sector: you need to join the 21st Century and start taking your environmental, social and corporate governance seriously,” NNTC chief executive Jamie Lowe said.

“We do fear that if this is the behaviour of a company thought to have sector-leading standards, what is the risk another Juukan Gorge-type incident will happen again, without sector-wide reforms?” he said.

Jacques, who has been CEO since 2016, will remain in his role until a successor can be found or until March 31, whichever is sooner, and the other two executives will leave the company on December 31, he said. 

The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) said the executives’ departure was “welcomed” but expressed concern at how long it took Rio Tinto to act.

“There are in fact two disasters: The first involves the tragic destruction of Juukan Gorge in May; the second is the dishonest malaise of Rio Tinto’s board and senior management in the months since,” said ACCR legal counsel James Fitzgerald. 

“This is just the first step on a long path towards restoring Rio Tinto’s good practice and reputation in its relationships with Indigenous peoples,” he said.

The board-led review found Rio Tinto had obtained legal authority to blast the sites but doing so “fell short of the standards and internal guidance that Rio Tinto sets for itself”.

Rio Tinto initially defended its blasting in the Juukan Gorge as authorised under a 2013 agreement with the state government.

But protests by Aboriginal leaders, who said they had not been informed of the planned blasting until it was too late to prevent it, led the company to issue an apology.

Australia’s parliament has been conducting its own inquiry into the Juukan Gorge incident and Western Australia’s state government is reviewing the laws governing mining operations near indigenous heritage sites.

By David Millikin for AFP


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