The French director of the multinational mining company Rio Tinto and two other senior executives have resigned following an outcry over the destruction of sacred Aboriginal sites in Australia’s northwest.
Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson announced on Friday that CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques was stepping down "by mutual agreement" along with the chief of the company's Iron Ore division, Chris Salisbury, and corporate relations head Simone Niven.
The resignations follow a board investigation into an incident on 24 May 2020, in which the Anglo-Australian company blasted 46,000-year-old caves in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia's remote Pilbara region, in order to expand an existing iron ore mine.
In doing so, the company destroyed one of the earliest known sites which was extremely significant to the area’s traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.
The cultural importance of the area was confirmed by an archaeological dig carried out a year after Rio Tinto obtained approval to blast in the area.
The dig uncovered the oldest known example of bone tools in Australia -- a sharpened kangaroo bone dating back 28,000 years -- and a plaited-hair belt that DNA testing linked to indigenous people still living in the area.
The board-led review found the company had obtained legal authority to blast the sites, as authorised under a 2013 agreement with the state government, but in doing so "fell short of the standards and internal guidance that Rio Tinto sets for itself".
Protests by Aboriginal leaders, who said they had not been informed of the planned blasting until it was too late to prevent it, led the company to issue an apology.
"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," Thompson said in a statement.
Frenchman Jean-Sébastien Jacques will remain in his role until a successor can be found or until 31 March 2021; the other two executives will leave the company on 31 December.
The three executives were obliged to forfeit bonuses at the end of August, Jacques alone losing 3 million euros.
Thompson said Friday that Rio Tinto would endeavor to “regain the confidence” of the indigenous communities of the traditional owners.
The National Native Title Council (NNTC), the committee representing Aboriginal landowners, welcomed the “layoffs” but said that it “is only a critical first step”.
“We hope this sends a strong message to the entire mining industry: you must join the 21st century and start taking your environmental and social stewardship seriously,” said Jamie Lowe, director of the NNTC in a statement.
“Traditional Owners are not anti-economic-development. They just want to be able to protect their most significant cultural heritage sites,” he said.
Draft bill to be discussed
The Western Australian Aboriginal affairs minister, Ben Wyatt earlier this month presented a draft bill to change the state's Aboriginal Heritage Act, saying a complete overhaul was needed to avoid a repeat of the Juukan destruction.
He explained that the explosion at Juukan was enabled under Section 18 of the 1972 Act, which excluded Aboriginal groups from having a voice – and he was determined to change that.
Briefings on the draft bill are set to be held with Aboriginal groups and industry stakeholders in the coming weeks.
Iron ore is Australia’s most exported natural resource, worth 47 billion euros in 2019, much of it from the Pilbara region.