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Mining giant axes execs over Indigenous land explosion

Jean-Sebastien Jacques
Rio Tinto CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques

A multinational resources company will part ways with its top executive after controversially blowing up two ancient rock shelters as part of a metal mine expansion.

Jean-Sebastien Jacques will resign as chief executive and executive director of Rio Tinto as soon as a successor is found. The decision means Jacques will prematurely end his employment as he is now expected to vacate the job before 31 March 2021.

The mining giant confirmed the departure was in response to intense scrutiny from traditional land owners, politicians and shareholders over its decision to conduct a controlled explosion at Juukan Gorge on May 24. The blast destroyed artefacts inside the shelters estimated to be up to 46,000-years-old like grinding stones, a bone sharpened into a tool and braided hair.

Heads roll

The work was intended to excavate the first mine pit as part of the Brockman 4 Iron Ore Expansion, 55km northwest of Tom Price. Rio had already met the regulatory requirements back in 2013. Rio profusely apologised for any distress caused to the indigenous Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People but superannuation investors continued to demand Jacques’ resignation.

Iron ore chief executive Chris Salisbury is similarly leaving the company on December 31, and will be replaced by rail, port and core services managing director Ivan Vella. Corporate relations group executive Simone Niven is also quitting at the end of 2020.

Up to $4.9M paycut

They will also be subject to significant pay cuts that have already been introduced, with Niven losing nearly $958,300, Salisbury $1.1 million and Jacques $4.9M.

A new social performance assurance position will be created to help prevent a repeat incident by overseeing communities, heritage practices and performance across the business. Non-executive director Simon McKeon has also been promoted to senior independent director to help improve Rio’s board engagement across Australia.

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“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 Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said in a public statement.

“I would like to thank Jean-Sebastien for his strong leadership of the group since becoming chief executive in 2016 … I would also like to thank Chris and Simone for the contribution both have made to the success of Rio Tinto over many years. I know that all three individuals, like the rest of the board, deeply regret the destruction of the Juukan rockshelters.”

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