Rio Tinto announced the resignation of its chief executive and two senior lieutenants on Friday over the destruction of the 46,000-year-old aboriginal site by the mining giant to expand an iron ore mine in Australia. The Anglo-Australian company is facing a growing revolt of investors over the destruction of the sacred site in the Yukan Gorge in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia – one of the earliest known places inhabited by Indigenous people in Australia.
Following an on-board investigation into the May 24 incident, Rio Tinto said CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques was resigning “by mutual consent”
“What happened in Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance will never happen again during an operation in Rio Tinto,” President Simon Thompson said in a statement. .
The cultural significance of the Juukan Gorge was confirmed by archeological excavations in one of the caves – known as rock shelters – a year after Rio Tinto received approval to blow up the area.
The excavation revealed the oldest known example of bone instruments in Australia – a sharpened kangaroo bone dating back 28,000 years – and braided hair, which the DNA test has linked to local people still living in the area.
An internal review of the company in August found that a “series of decisions, actions and omissions over a long period of time” preceded the choice to continue the Yuukan Gorge explosion, despite fears about the fate of the Aboriginal shrine.
In an initial response, the company deprived millions of bonuses of the three executives.
But the company’s shareholders and corporate responsibility bodies ridiculed the move as insufficient and called for heads to roll.
The National Council for Local Titles, which represents local landowners, welcomed what he called the “dismissal” of Rio Tinto executives, but said such personnel changes were “only the most important first step”.
“We hope this sends a strong message to the entire mining sector: you need to join the 21st century and start taking your environmental, social and corporate governance seriously,” said NNTC CEO Jamie Lowe.
Jacques, who has been chief executive since 2016, will remain in office until a successor is found, or until March 31, whichever comes first, and the other two executives will leave the company on December 31.
Announcing his departure, Thomspon said all three executives would be paid undisclosed “separation terms” under their contracts, raising the specter of significant payouts that quickly ranked investors.
“We … will look closely at the terms of the split, with the expectation that any outcome will not provide the unexpected,” said Louise Davidson, chief executive of the Australian Retirement Investors Council.
The Australian Center for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR), for its part, has expressed concern about how long it has taken Rio Tinto to operate.
“There are actually two disasters: The first involves the tragic destruction of the Yukanc Gorge in May; the second is Rio Tinto’s misconduct on board and senior management in the months since, ”said ACCR’s legal counsel James Fitzgerald.
Rio Tinto initially defended its explosion in the Juukan Gorge, as permitted under a 2013 agreement with the state government.
But protests by Aboriginal leaders, who said they were not informed of the planned blast until it was too late to prevent it, prompted the company to apologize.
The Australian Parliament is conducting its own investigation into the Yucan Gorge incident, and the Western Australian government is reviewing laws governing mining operations near local heritage sites.
Aboriginal West Australian Treasurer Ben Wyatt said Rio Tinto, based in London and Melbourne, had allowed a “great distance” to develop between management and Pilbara, “where they make up 75 per cent of their revenue”.
“There is no one on this council who has a real understanding of the aboriginal groups that own the state in which they work,” Wyatt, who is also the country’s aboriginal minister, told ABC public television.
“It sounds risky to me, and it’s something I’m stunned, it hasn’t been raised over the years.”