Rio Tinto’s CEO to quit after anger over Aboriginal cave blasts

Two other executives will also leave after the mining giant destroyed Indigenous Australian heritage sites.

Outgoing Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques
Jean-Sebastien Jacques, CEO of Rio Tinto Group, is due to leave his post by March 31. Activists and investors said Rio had not done enough in an earlier board-led review into how the miner legally detonated indigenous rockshelters showing 46,000 years of human habitation in Western Australia [File: Hannah McKay/Reuters]

Rio Tinto is parting ways with its CEO and two senior executives, bowing to mounting shareholder criticism of the destruction of two significant Aboriginal rock shelters and the global miner’s limited initial response.

Chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques, who has led Rio since 2016, will step down by March 31 next year, the company said on Friday, after shareholders expressed concerns about executive accountability.

The head of iron ore, Chris Salisbury, and Simone Niven, head of corporate relations, the unit responsible for dealing with Indigenous communities, will also depart.

The move came after activists and investors said Rio had not done enough in an earlier board-led review into how the miner legally detonated rock shelters showing 46,000 years of human habitation at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia against the wishes of traditional owners. The review had cut short-term bonuses for some executives.

“Despite a drawn-out process, we feel the Board has listened to investors and other stakeholders and taken appropriate steps to ensure executive accountability for the systemic failures that led to the disaster at Juukan Gorge,” The Australian Council of Superannuation Investors said in a statement.

Brynn O’Brien, executive director of activist investor the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility said the decision “should be a wake-up call for the Australian iron ore sector and mining companies worldwide on their relationships with First Nations people”.

Jacques last month apologised at an Australian Senate inquiry into the destruction that was against the wishes of Aboriginal traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti, Kurrama and Pinikura people, saying there was no doubt the company could have made better decisions.

International condemnation

The cave blasts, which enabled Rio to access $135m of high-grade iron ore, drew international condemnation and damaged Rio’s reputation for dealing with Indigenous groups in its worldwide operations.

“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,” Rio chairman Simon Thompson said on Friday.

The National Native Title Council, representing Traditional Owners, welcomed the decision after calling on the company for large-scale cultural change, but warned that the executive changes were only a “crucial first step”.

Australia’s Senate has yet to complete its inquiry, which is looking at how the site came to be destroyed, the processes that failed to protect it, the effects on Traditional Owners, and the legislative changes required to prevent such incidents from recurring.

Western Australian state laws that approved the destruction are also being revised.

Source: Reuters