Richard Wainwright / AP
Mining giant Rio Tinto is separating from its CEO as it seeks to quell public anger over the company’s destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site in Australia.
In May, the company passed through two rock shelters in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge to mine iron ore. Evidence of human settlement there dates back tens of millennia.
The destruction in the Pilbara region was not illegal under Australian law, according to local media reports. Rio Tinto was granted permission to mine in the area in 2013, “a right that was unaffected by the discovery of ancient artifacts such as stone relics, wildlife remains and human hair in one of the Juukan caves a year later,” he noted. the Australian ABC.
But “what happened to Juukan is wrong,” company president Simon Thompson said Friday. “We are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural importance never again occurs during a Rio Tinto operation.”
Jean-Sébastien Jacques, the company’s chief executive and executive director, will leave by “mutual agreement,” Rio Tinto said. He will remain in the role until a replacement is found or by March 31, whichever comes first.
Two other high-ranking executives, Chris Salisbury head of the iron ore division and Simone Niven, head of corporate relations, are also leaving the company.
A month after the destruction in Juukan Gorge, the company issued an apology and said it will support strengthening legal protections for Aboriginal heritage sites.
Last month, after a board review, Rio Tinto stripped the three executives of performance bonuses for this year. That review concluded that, even though the company had legal permission, its shares “did not live up to the internal standards and guidelines Rio Tinto sets itself.”
Friday’s announcement came after “important stakeholders expressed concerns about executive accountability,” according to the company.
“We are also determined to win back the trust of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and other traditional owners,” Thomson said.
Critics of Rio Tinto say there is abundant evidence that the company was aware of the site’s importance prior to the explosion. For example, as reported by the BBC, “last week it was revealed that in the days leading up to the destruction of the caves in May, Rio Tinto hired lawyers in case opponents tried to seek injunctions to stop them.”
Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation have released a statement saying their people have not commented on the executive’s jolt, ABC reported.
“We will continue to work with Rio Tinto in the aftermath of the Juukan Gorge disaster,” the statement said.
“Our focus continues to focus on preserving Aboriginal heritage and promoting far-reaching change to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again.”
Jamie Lowe is the CEO of the National Native Title Council, which supports the traditional Australian owners of the land. He said the group welcomes the changes at the top of the Rio Tinto, but stressed that there is still a lot to do.
“We fear that if this is the behavior of a company that is believed to have industry standards, what is the risk of another Juukan Gorge incident happening again, without industry-wide reforms?” Lowe said in a statement.
He said Rio Tinto has so far refused to carry out an independent review of what led to the destruction, a step traditional owners see as critical to preventing further losses to priceless indigenous sites.