Rio Tinto chief executive resigns over destruction of Aborginal site

Andrew Cummings
September 13, 2020

Jean-Sebastien Jacques, the CEO of Australian metals and mining corporation Rio Tinto, and two other senior executives will step down following intense pressure of shareholders and authorities demanding actions in response to the company's decision to destroy ancient caves in Western Australia, the company said on Friday.

Jean-Sébastien Jacques, the company's chief executive and executive director, will depart by "mutual agreement", Rio Tinto said.

Executives Chris Salisbury and Simone Niven will leave the company on December 31. The company was pressured by the investors because it has apparently blown up a 46,000 year old sacred Indigenous site in Australia.

The caves, set deep in a desert gorge, had yielded a treasure trove of artifacts tracing aboriginal people's long history in Australia: a 28,000-year-old kangaroo bone sharpened into a blade; a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair believed to have been worn as a belt.

The successor to Jacques, CEO since July 2016, will need to convince investors, regulators and legislators in Western Australia that Rio can address governance failings in its iron ore unit - the division that accounted for more than 90% of first-half earnings.

Iron ore boss Chris Salisbury and corporate relations manager Simon Niven will also leave the company.

'We are determined to ensure the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation'.

The cave shelters are culturally and archaeologically significant, indicating the presence of continuous human habitation for more than 45,000 years.

In announcing their departure, Thomspon said all three executives would be paid undisclosed "separation terms" in line with their contracts, raising the spectre of significant payouts which quickly rankled investors.

Australia's largest pension fund, AustralianSuper, said it is convinced that "appropriate responsibility" has now been taken on by executives in Rio Tinto, although it added that nothing can nullify the destruction of sites of cultural importance.

Chairman Simon Thompson said on Friday the company was determined to "re-establish our reputation as a leader in communities and heritage management".

The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility welcomed the executive action as an end to the "dishonest malaise of Rio Tinto's board and senior management", strategy lead James Fitzgerald said.

He said Rio Tinto has so far refused to carry out an independent review of what led to the destruction - a step that the traditional owners see as critical to prevent further losses to priceless Indigenous sites.

Rio Tinto's stock was down almost 1% in Sydney on Friday.

"There's no one on that board with any real understanding of the Aboriginal groups who own the country on which they operate", Wyatt, who is also the state's indigenous affairs minister, told public broadcaster ABC.

When the company issued the first apology, they did not fire any executive related to the incident. The blasts of the caves went ahead on May 24 despite a multi-year battle by the local Aboriginal owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, to save the site.

"We can not and will not allow this type of devastation to occur ever again", the statement added.

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