Rio Tinto CEO to quit after Aboriginal cave demolition
Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques has resigned after the company’s board yielded to shareholder pressure over the destruction of sacred 46,000-year-old rock shelters in Western Australia.
Rio Tinto said Jacques was leaving “by mutual agreement”. Two other executives, head of iron ore Chris Salisbury, and corporate affairs head Simone Niven, are also leaving, the company said on Friday.
The mining giant sparked outrage after destroying the ancient Juukan Gorge sites in May despite the opposition of Aboriginal traditional owners - the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP). Anger increased when the company decided to cut bonuses of already high-earning executives.
The caves had shown evidence of continuous human habitation dating back 46,000 years and sat above about eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore, with an estimated value of £75m.
Investors had criticised Rio's lack of action after the destruction. The Hesta pension fun, which manages AUD52bn, called for a public inquiry into all agreements the company has made with Aboriginal traditional owners in the region.
AustralianSuper, the country's biggest fund with AUD182bn under management, welcomed the departure of the three executives.
Chief Executive Ian Silk said the fund was "satisfied that appropriate responsibility has now been taken by executives at Rio Tinto", although nothing could "undo the destruction of the profoundly cultural significant sites in the Juukan Gorge, and the impact on the traditional owners of the land, the PKKP people".
He added that the move should be the first step in "ensuring the board is more Australian focused and has a greater sensitivity to the nation and its cultural identity".
"Rio can now work with traditional owners to guarantee that its processes are appropriate for the protection of culturally important sites, and that it has the right internal accountabilities. We will continue to take an active interest in how these changes are implemented."
Australia's Human Rights Law Centre said while the removal of the three senior executives was an important first step "it must not be the last".
Centre legal director Keren Adams said: “At last we are seeing some proper accountability at the top for Rio Tinto's destruction of Juukan Gorge. The company’s initial response of docking executives’ bonuses was patently inadequate given the significance of the site."
“But this is only the first step. The company must now follow this action up with proper reparations to the Traditional Owners and start walking the talk on human rights and cultural heritage protection.”
Adams added that the Juukan Gorge demolition was not an aberration, "but rather symptomatic of a broader culture of disregard for communities’ rights and cultural heritage".
“Over the past few years, Rio Tinto has been the subject of serious human rights complaints by communities impacted by its operations in a number of different countries.
“We have been working with communities in Bougainville, for instance, who are also facing destruction of their sacred sites as well as serious pollution of their land and water sources as a result of the massive quantities of mine waste left by Rio there."