An explosion in a tunnel in Australia that led to the destruction of a 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous site in Australia while Rio Tinto as expanding an iron ore mine has forced the resignation of the company’s CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques under pressure from investors.
According to the company, Jacques will formally relinquish his position in March or once a successor is chosen in his place, whichever happens earlier.
Chris Salisbury, head of the iron ore business, and Simone Niven, group executive for corporate relations, two other senior executives of the company have also resigned over the issue. Salisburys’s exit will be implemented with immediate effect and he will be leaving the company at the end of the year while Niven will leave the company at the end of December.
“What happened at Juukan was wrong,” Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said in a statement. He was referring to the destruction of two rock shelters in Western Australia that contained artifacts indicating tens of thousands of years of continuous human occupation.
“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 added.
The company said that as a part of their contracts, the three executives will still receive some pay including long-term incentive rewards. The company has imposed a combined penalty of £3.8 million (roughly $5 million) in cut bonuses from the three executives.
The Juukan Gorge caves were destroyed in My 24 this year after seven long years of fight for the caves by the local custodians of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, who strived to protect the caves. In June, Rio Tinto had apologized for the incident.
The company had been unable to meet some of its own standards “in relation to the responsible management and protection of cultural heritage”, Rio Tinto said last month in a report published by it.
But despite the admission of guilt, there was not action taken on its executives. That resulted in severe criticism from investor groups who accused the company of shirking away from taking complete responsibility for the demolition of the caves.
For Aboriginal people, the destroyed caves beard significant archeological value and deep cultural meaning.
“Significant stakeholders have expressed concerns about executive accountability for the failings identified”, Rio Tinto acknowledged in Friday’s statement.
Rio Tinto’s decision was welcomed by some advocacy groups in Australia.
“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,” James Fitzgerald, head of legal counsel and strategy at the Australasian Centre for Corporate Responsibility, said in a statement.
“The damage is irreparable,” he added. “We will need to hear from the [Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura] people as to whether they are satisfied with any reparations Rio Tinto has offered.”
The firing of the executives was also welcomed by the National Native Title Council, an organization representing the rights and interests of Indigenous custodial groups.
“But this is not the end,” CEO Jamie Lowe tweeted. “Rio must now undertake an Aboriginal led review & large scale cultural change.”
(Adapted from CNN.com)