Rio Tinto heads roll over sacred Aboriginal site destruction

Rio Tinto said Jean-Sébastien Jacques was leaving “by mutual agreement” with the board. (Image courtesy of Rio Tinto.)

Rio Tinto (ASX, LON, NYSE: RIO) chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques will step down by the end of March next year over mounting backlash against the company’s decision to destroy ancient Aboriginal heritage sites in Western Australia.

The world’s second largest miner said two other senior executives — iron ore boss Chris Salisbury, and corporate affairs head Simone Niven, who had responsibility for indigenous affairs — will also leave the company.

The high profile departures come four years after Rio Tinto swept out its veteran managers to make way for a new generation of business leaders.

The fresh changes are a direct result of shareholder and public outcry over the May destruction a 46,000-year-old sacred site despite the opposition of Aboriginal traditional owners.

Chris Salisbury will step down as chief executive of the iron ore division with immediate effect and leave Rio Tinto on Dec. 31

Jacques will leave once his successor is chosen or at the end of next March, whichever date comes first. Salisbury’s termination is effective immediately, Rio Tinto said.

Ivan Vella, currently managing director for rail, port and core services within Rio Tinto Iron Ore, will replace Salisbury on an interim basis.

Niven, in turn, will step down on December 31 this year, after “completing an orderly transition of her responsibilities,” the board said.

Jacques’ appearance before a Parliamentary inquiry last month only made things worse. He said he was not aware of the importance of the caves prior to them being blown up.

He also noted that mining through the landmarks likely delivered about $135 million in extra value to Rio’s iron ore division, a unit that generated underlying earnings of $9.6 billion in 2019.

The outgoing chief also confirmed the region’s traditional land owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation, didn’t know that the company had been considering three alternative options that could have avoided damaging the Juukan Gorge sites.

Rio was granted approval for work at the Brockman 4 iron ore project in 2013. Subsequent archaeological excavation revealed ancient artifacts at the site, including grinding stones and a bone sharpened into a tool.

Wakeup call

“At last we are seeing some proper accountability at the top for Rio Tinto’s destruction of Juukan Gorge,” Keren Adams, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said in a statement. “The company’s initial response of docking executives’ bonuses was patently inadequate given the significance of the site.”

The group had decided in August to cut short-term bonuses of Jacques, Salisbury and other executives following an internal review of the events that took place on May 24, while carrying out work to expand Rio’s iron ore operation. The move further enraged critics.

Outgoing CEO Jacques has apologized for the destruction that was against the wishes of Aboriginal traditional owners, saying there was no doubt the company could have made better decisions.

Adams added that the miner’s actions at Juukan Gorge were 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.

“In Bougainville, for instance, communities are also facing destruction of their sacred sites as well as serious pollution of their land and water sources,” Adams said.

“This situation has demonstrated beyond doubt the importance of companies’ boards and executives protecting their social license,” said Brynn O’Brien, activist and executive director of the Australasian Center for Corporate Responsibility.

“It should be a wakeup call for the Australian iron ore sector and mining companies worldwide on their relationships with First Nations people.”

“[The destroyed sites] were not only extremely important sites for Aboriginal communities, but also for archaeological understanding of the distant past in Australia,” Peter Stone, the UNESCO chair in Cultural Property Protection and Peace at Newcastle University in the UK said in June.

Rio Tinto CEO quits over sacred Aboriginal site blasts
Juukan Gorge cave sites seen before the destruction. (Screenshot via YouTube.)

Rio Tinto has said it plans to add a new social performance function to monitor its approach to community and heritage practices. It will also include processes to escalate heritage issues to senior management.

The consequences of the controversial damage to Juukan Gorge rock shelters has reached competitors. The world’s largest miner BHP (ASX, LON, NYSE: BHP) and Fortescue Metals Group both are now reviewing plans that could threaten sacred sites in Australia as they step up talks with traditional owners.

Heavy burden

With no obvious internal successor for Jacques, analysts agree that Rio will likely search outside the company for its next boss.

Some, however, believe the company may consider the head of copper and diamonds, Arnaud Soirat, or Alf Barrios, who runs the aluminum division, for the top job.

Whoever takes the reins, he or she will not only have to fix Rio Tinto’s damaged relationship with Australian landowners, but will also have to clean up the mess of alleged corruption in Guinea to obtain rights to the massive Simandou iron ore deposit and the delay and climbing costs of Oyu Tolgoi’s underground expansion.

With files from Bloomberg, Reuters.

Rio Tinto heads roll over sacred Aboriginal site destruction

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