Mining CEO resigns over destroying 46,000-year-old sacred indigenous site

Rio Tinto on Friday announced the resignation of its CEO and two top lieutenants over the mining giant’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old tribal site to expand an iron ore mine in Australia. The Anglo-Australian firm faced a growing investor rebellion over the destruction of the sacred site at the Jucan Gorge in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia – one of the earliest known settlements settled by the indigenous people of Australia.

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

Australia Rio Tinto
On June 9, 2020, protesters rallied outside the Rio Tinto office following the destruction of Australian indigenous sacred sites in Perth.

Richard Wainwright / AP

“Simon Thompson said in a statement,” What happened on Juken was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site with such extraordinary archaeological and cultural significance will never occur in the Rio Tinto operation. “

The cultural significance of the Juan Gorge was confirmed by an archaeological dig, one of which was done in a cave – known as a rock shelter – a year later when Rio Tinto received approval to explode the area.

The excavations uncovered the oldest known examples of bone tools in Australia – dating back to a kangaroo bone 28,000 years ago – and a leashed-hair belt that DNA tests involving indigenous people are still living in the area.

An internal company review in August determined that a series of “decisions, actions and omissions over an extended period of time” led to the option to proceed with the Juukan Gorge despite concerns over the fate of the Holy Aboriginal site.

In an initial response, the company snatched millions of dollars in bonuses from three executives.

But the firm’s shareholders and corporate responsibility bodies called for the head to roll over the move as inadequate.

The National Native Title Council, which represents indigenous landowners, welcomed the “dismissal” of Rio Tinto officials, but said such staff changes were “only an important first step”.

NNTC Chief Executive Jamie Lowe said, “We hope this will send a strong message to the entire mining sector: You need to get into the 21st century and take your environmental, social and corporate governance seriously.”

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

Announcing his departure, Thompson said that all three executives would be paid “different terms” in line with their contracts, increasing the audience of significant payouts, which quickly ranked investors.

“We will be … looking closely at the different arrangements, with the expectation that no one will let the exhaust air,” said Lewis Davidson, CEO of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors.

The Australian Center for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), for its part, expressed concern over how long Rio Tinto took to function.

ACCR legal adviser FitzGerald said, “There are actually two disasters: the first involved the tragic destruction of Juan Gorge in May. The second is Rio Tinto’s board’s worst behavior and senior management in months.”

Rio Tinto initially defended its eruption at the Juanan gorge under a 2013 agreement with the state government.

But protests from tribal leaders, who said they had not been notified of the planned explosion until it was too late to stop it, led the company to issue an apology.

Australia’s parliament is conducting its own investigation into the Zuccan Gorge incident, and the state government of Western Australia is reviewing laws governing mining operations near indigenous heritage sites.

Treasurer Ben Wyatt of Western Australia, who is Aboriginal, said Rio Tinto, with double headquarters in London and Melbourne, was allowed to develop “a vast distance” between its leadership and the Pilbara, where they would make 75 per cent of their earnings. Huh.

Wyatt, who is also the state’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, was told by public broadcaster ABC, “There is no one on the board, a country with a real understanding of tribal groups on which they work.”

“He, to me, screams risk, and it’s something I’m shocked to see that he hasn’t been up for years.”