Rio Tinto bows to investor pressure over cave blast as CEO, executives depart

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Jean-Sebastien Jacques, CEO of Rio Tinto Group poses for a portrait ahead of the publication of the company 2019 full year results in London

By Melanie Burton

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Rio Tinto parted ways with its CEO and two senior executives on Friday, bowing to mounting shareholder criticism of the destruction of two significant Aboriginal rockshelters and the global miner’s limited initial response.

Chief executive Jean-Sébastien Jacques, who has led Rio since 2016, will step down by March 31 next year, the company said, 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 rockshelters 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 enquiry 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.

The cave blasts, which enabled Rio to access $135 million 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 (NNTC), 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 impacts 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.

Rio shares traded flat in morning trade at A$100.41, in line a steady broader market

($1 = 1.3774 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne; additional reporting by Rashmi Ashok in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur and Richard Pullin)


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