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Rio Tinto CEO, executives resign over cave scandal

Rio Tinto Chief Executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques  (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)
Rio Tinto Chief Executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

The chief executive officer and two senior executives are resigning from Rio Tinto after the mining giant destroyed the ancient Juukan Gorge caves to expand an iron ore mine.

CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques, iron ore division head Chris Salisbury, and corporate affairs chief Simone Niven will leave Rio, the company said in a statement on Friday.

All three will leave in the coming six months, with the CEO to stay until 31 March or until a successor is found.

The mass exodus comes after the mining behemoth destroyed the culturally significant caves, triggering a tidal wave of anger from Indigenous groups, politicians and shareholders.

On Thursday, lobby group GetUp flew a plane over the company’s Brisbane office calling for the sacking of the CEO.

The Gorge had evidence of human occupation dating back at least 46,000 years.

The explosion had been legally sanctioned, but went against the wishes of the traditional owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. Former Rio Tinto senior adviser Glynn Cochrane in late August accused Rio Tinto of paying lip service to cultural heritage issues, focusing on marketing over actual engagement.

Cochrane also told a Senate inquiry into the destruction that Jacques had reduced the company’s cultural heritage processes while shifting relationships with traditional owners into deals.

"These are one-sided, lawyered deals, and you can see what the consequence of that was," Cochrane said.

"They destroyed the system which would have helped them understand the situation."

Cochrane said non-disclosure agreements had also gagged traditional owners.

The same inquiry heard that the traditional owners were not informed that Rio Tinto had also considered multiple options for expanding the iron ore site that would not impact the caves. The company had also received an expert report in 2018 categorised the Juukan Gorge as having the “highest archaeological significance in Australia”.

The three executives were stripped of $7 million in bonuses in August after the board found they all bore some responsibility, although the moves fell short of demands from investors and Indigenous groups.

The National Native Title Council and prominent super investors including AustralianSuper wrote to the company expressing their dismay at the destruction and seemingly small penalties against the executives.

‘There are two disasters’: Australians respond

The Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility (ACCR) described the departures as a step in the right direction, but warned the damage cannot be undone.

“There are in fact two disasters: The first involves the tragic destruction of Juukan Gorge in May; the second is the dishonest malaise of Rio Tinto’s board and senior management in the months since,” James Fitzgerald, strategy lead at ACCR said.

“The first cannot be undone. The damage is irreparable. We will need to hear from the PKKP people as to whether they are satisfied with any reparations Rio Tinto has offered.”

He said investors have stepped up and shown they will not accept corporate misinformation, proof that shareholder democracy and investor action is “alive and well in Australia”.

“Corporate captains may think twice before attempting to mislead investors, not to mention a Parliamentary Inquiry, in future.

“This is just the first step on a long path towards restoring Rio Tinto’s good practice and reputation in its relationships with Indigenous peoples. The company’s conscientious but beleaguered Communities staff deserve to be supported and encouraged in their important work.”

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