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Jean-Sebastien Jacques, CEO Rio Tinto, will leave the company alongside two other executives in the wake of the Juukan Gorge demolition, which saw historically and culturally significant caves (above) destroyed to expand an iron ore mine.
Jean-Sebastien Jacques, CEO Rio Tinto, will leave the company alongside two other executives in the wake of the Juukan Gorge demolition, which saw historically and culturally significant caves (above) destroyed to expand an iron ore mine.

Rio Tinto executives to resign following destruction of Indigenous site

Mining conglomerate Rio Tinto has confirmed CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other senior executives will leave the company, with significant implications for its Australian projects.

The resignations came in the wake of the company’s internal review into the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves, located in the Pilbara region and described as having “the highest archaeological significance in Australia”.

Simon Thompson, chairman Rio Tinto
Simon Thompson, chairman Rio Tinto
"What happened at Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again"
Simon Thompson, Rio Tinto

The caves were destroyed by Rio Tinto in a controlled blast on 24 May 2020 in order to expand an iron ore mine, against the wishes of traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP).

In the days prior to 24 May, the PKKP were informed that the caves could be destroyed and requested intervention from both Rio Tinto management and a government minister.

The decision to proceed with the destruction of the site was widely criticised and led to a parliamentary inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee for Northern Australian (JSCNA).

Rio Tinto’s own internal review initially found several senior executives partially liable for “systemic failings”, and subjected them to financial penalties totalling less than $8 million.

However, following pressure from Rio Tinto shareholders – including AustralianSuper and the Future Fund, Australia’s $166 billion sovereign wealth fund – the company announced that Jacques, who has led Rio Tinto since 2016, will step down as CEO on 31 March 2021 or when a suitable successor is found.

» View Rio Tinto's official apology and updates to inquiry

Jean-Sebastien Jacques, outgoing Rio Tinto CEO
Jean-Sebastien Jacques, outgoing Rio Tinto CEO

In addition, Chris Salisbury, chief executive of Rio Tinto’s iron ore division and Simone Niven, group executive for corporate relations, will step down on 31 December 2020.

Simon Thompson, chairman Rio Tinto, said, “I know that all three individuals, like the rest of the Board, deeply regret the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters… What happened at Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation.

“We are also determined to regain the trust of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and other traditional owners,” he added. 

Warren Entsch MP, chairman JSCNA, welcomed the announcement, adding, “The evidence received by the Committee has made clear that the internal culture at Rio Tinto was a significant factor in the destruction of these sites. New leadership, new structures and new operating principles within the company are essential to preventing such catastrophes in the future.”

Impact of the changes

Indeed, while the departure of the three executives appears to have alleviated some of the pressure on Rio Tinto from shareholders, the impact on the company’s internal structures and future projects will be far-reaching.

Notably, CEO Jacques has been a vocal advocate for Rio Tinto’s diamond division, which is facing numerous challenges in the near-term, including the closure of the Argyle Mine at the end of 2020 and ongoing legal disputes with both its Canadian mining partners.

"We have also recognised that we do not have enough Indigenous people in leadership roles. So we have committed $50 million to attract, develop and retain Indigenous professionals into our company"

Arnaud Soirat is currently chief executive of Rio Tinto copper and diamonds.

Expressing his desire to expand the diamond division in 2017, Jacques said, “On average, from the time you think there is a good property to the time you get to diamonds it’s 30 years, so the exploration people have been under pressure for a long time. It’s an exploration game for us.”

However, any new projects will be subject to rigorous new heritage and community audit processes, as recommended by the board review.

Thompson flagged that the company would increase the Indigenous presence in its corporate leadership, saying, "We have also recognised that we do not have enough Indigenous people in leadership roles. So we have committed $50 million to attract, develop and retain Indigenous professionals into our company."

In addition, Rio Tinto has promised to “modernise our partnership with traditional owners and agreements”; The Sydney Morning Herald reports that a number of shareholders and Indigenous groups are indeed "demanding an independent review into all of [Rio Tinto's] agreements with traditional landowners across its Australian operations".

Any review of the company's agreements could impact its closure plan for the Argyle site, which like the Juukan Gorge is located in Western Australia.

At the time of publication, Rio Tinto was yet to submit its plan to regulators; however, its website notes, “All aspects of closure planning are being undertaken in accordance with regulatory requirements, our own policies and standards and our Indigenous Land Use Agreement.”

The Land Use Agreement was signed in 2005, and has been praised by Native Title experts for its effective shielding of sites from destruction under section 18 of Western Australia's Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, which allows mining companies to apply for exemption from prosecution for “excavating, destroying, damaging, concealing or in any way altering any Aboriginal site”.

Rio Tinto was granted section 18 approval to destroy the Juukan Gorge caves in 2013.
 

JUUNKAN GORGE 2013 vs 2020


Juukan Gorge in 2013, left, and 2020. Source and composite: ABC News from Puutu Kunti Kurrama And Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation

 

More reading:
2020 Argyle Tender diamonds revealed
Rio Tinto faces further legal challenges in Canadian mining venture
Rio Tinto embroiled in legal battle with mining partner
 











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