Mining firm executives depart over destruction of ancient indigenous rock shelters in Western Australia

Three executives of an Anglo-Australian mining giant have stepped down following strong backlash over the company’s destruction of ancient indigenous rock shelters in Western Australia.

Rio Tinto blew up the rock shelters at Juukan Groge in the region of Pilbara in May this year so that it could mine better quality iron ore. The ancient Aboriginal site was one of the oldest in Australia and showed evidence of continuous human habitation dating back 46,000 years.

The company said in a statement that its CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other senior executives would step down “by mutual agreement” with the company’s board.

Mr Jacques, who became CEO in 2016, would remain in his role until 31 March or the appointment of his replacement, whichever came first.

The board’s previous disciplinary measures over the incident involved cutting the three executives’ short-term bonuses, which fury outrage among Indigenous activists and members of the public who felt it was an “empty gesture” and inadequate.

But after several “significant stakeholders” voiced their concerns over “executive accountability for the failings”, the board announced the departures on Friday.

Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said: “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. We have listened to our stakeholders’ concerns that a lack of individual accountability undermines the Group’s ability to rebuild that trust and to move forward to implement the changes identified in the Board Review.”

He added that the three executives “deeply regret the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters”.

The mining giant’s senior executives had claimed they were not aware of the site’s significance until after it was destroyed. However, it was later found to have known for years about the importance of the shelters with the head of an Australian parliamentary committee looking into the affair raising concerns that Rio Tinto had given the inquiry misleading evidence.

Indigenous groups welcomed the news, but urge the industry to do better. The First Heritage Protection Alliance said in a statement: “Unless there is industry-wide reform and robust legislative change, there will be other appalling situations like Juukan Gorge.”

The Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corporation said it would continue to work with Rio Tinto in the aftermath of the destruction.

“Our focus continues to rest heavily on preserving Aboriginal heritage and advocating for wide-ranging changes to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.

“We cannot and will not allow this type of devastation to occur ever again.”

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