Rio Tinto CEO forfeits millions over destruction of Aboriginal site

The review found the destruction is rather ‘the result of a series of decisions, actions and omissions over an extended period of time’

SYDNEY • Mining giant Rio Tinto stripped its CEO of US$3.5 million (RM14.63 million) yesterday after the firm destroyed a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal heritage site to expand an iron ore mine in Australia.

The Anglo-Australian firm blasted rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia’s remote Pilbara region on May 24, destroying one of the earliest known sites occupied by Australia’s indigenous people.

Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques will forfeit £2.7 million (RM14.8 million) in performance bonuses as a result of the incident, the company announced yesterday following a high-level review.

Head of the iron ore division Chris Salisbury and corporate rela- tions head Simone Niven will also lose US$792,000 and US$687,000 respectively.

The board-led review found Rio Tinto had obtained legal authority to blast the sites but doing so “fell short of the standards and internal guidance that Rio Tinto sets for itself”.

It found “no single root cause or error” directly led to the destruction, rather it was “the result of a series of decisions, actions and omissions over an extended period of time”.

Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said there had been “numerous missed opportunities over almost a decade” and the company had failed to respect local communities and their heritage.

“While the review provides a clear framework for change, it is important to emphasise that this is the start of a process, not the end,” he said.

“We will implement important new measures and governance to ensure we do not repeat what happened at Juukan Gorge.”

Thompson said the company would work to rebuild trust with the Pinikura and Puutu Kunti Kurrama Aboriginal communities, who are the traditional owners of the region.

Rio Tinto initially defended its blasting in the Juukan Gorge as authorised under a 2013 agreement with the state government.

But emotional 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.

The cultural importance of Juukan Gorge was confirmed by an archaeological dig carried out at one of the rock shelters 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.

Western Australia’s state government is currently reviewing the laws governing mining operations near indigenous heritage sites. — AFP