Rio Tinto CEO goes in wake of ancient site destruction

Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto has announced the departures of chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other senior executives following the company’s destruction of ancient indigenous rock shelters in Western Australia.

Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest mining company, said in a statement Mr Jacques would step down “by mutual agreement” with the company’s board, as would iron ore head Chris Salisbury and corporate affairs chief Simone Niven.

The company said Mr Jacques, who became CEO in 2016, would remain in his role until March 31 or the appointment of his replacement – whichever came first – after “significant stakeholders” had expressed concern over “executive accountability for the failings identified”.

The move comes after Rio Tinto blew up the rock shelters, at Juukan Gorge in the iron ore-rich Pilbara region, in May.

It also marks a step up after the board’s earlier disciplinary measures over the incident, in which the three executives’ short-term bonuses were cut. Several prominent investors in the company complained those measures were inadequate.

The shelters held extreme significance for the area’s indigenous owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.

Rio Tinto was said to have been aware of their importance for several years, yet still took the decision to destroy them in the quest for iron ore.

“While there is general recognition of the transparency of the Board Review and support for the changes recommended, significant stakeholders have expressed concerns about executive accountability for the failings identified,” Rio Tinto said in a statement.

Rio Tinto results
Rio Tinto results

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.”

In a move to “enhance Board engagement in Australia” – seen as helping the company enhance its understanding of Australian issues – Rio Tinto said it had created the new position of senior independent director responsible for oversight of its Australian-listed operations.

Non-executive director, Simon McKeon, had been appointed to the role with immediate effect, the company said.

Sam Laidlaw will continue in the role of senior independent director of the British side of the company, Rio Tinto plc.

Mr Thompson said: “I am grateful to Simon for agreeing to assume the new Senior Independent Director role of Rio Tinto Limited. He is committed, as I am, to enhancing the Board’s engagement in Australia and working with stakeholders to deliver the changes set out in the Board Review.