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Rio Tinto chief quits after outcry from the Church of England Pensions Board and others

18 September 2020

He faced criticism over the destruction of an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site

iStock

An iron ore mine in the remote Pilbara region of Australia

An iron ore mine in the remote Pilbara region of Australia

THE chief executive of the Rio Tinto mining giant has resigned after an outcry from the Church of England Pensions Board and others over the company’s destruction of an ancient Aboriginal archaeological site.

Jean-Sébastien Jacques, the head of the UK-based firm, stood down last week after weeks of condemnation over the decision to blow up two caves in Pilbara, Western Australia, in May, to expand an iron mine. Two other senior executives have also lost their jobs.

The Pensions Board, which is an investor in Rio Tinto, was among those calling for action once it became clear how damaging the decision to destroy the Juukan Gorge caves had been.

The Board’s director of ethics and engagement, Adam Matthews, told the BBC last week that an internal inquiry by Rio Tinto had revealed a “litany of mistakes that have gone back over ten years. . . The company is in a dreadful position. You have warnings from a number of people over that time period of the cultural significance of this site, and concerns expressed by the community which value this site hugely.”

The caves show evidence of human habitation dating back 46,000 years, and are one of Australia’s most important archaeological sites. They are also of sacred significance to the Puutu Kunti Kur­rama and Pinikura indigenous people, who have lived in the region for millennia.

Although Rio Tinto initially insisted, after the backlash, that it had been given permission to destroy the caves, documents disclosed to the Australian parliament revealed that it had been so worried about legal action before blowing up the site that it had preemptively hired lawyers to protect itself.

“Fundamentally, when you look at the issue, this should never have happened,” Mr Matthews said. “You need the consent of local people to be able to conduct such operations.”

At first, the only sanction taken by the board of Rio Tinto was to cut the bonuses of Mr Jacques and other senior executives involved, but Mr Matthews said that that was “obviously not sufficient”.

Speaking before the chief executive’s departure was announced, Mr Matthews challenged the board to get tougher in dealing with the scandal. “It’s a test for the board of how serious their response is. It’s important that the company addresses the underlying problem here. We know there is some disquiet among some of the directors. The company is under the spotlight on this.”

The Pensions Board has been an activist investor for some time, pressing Rio Tinto to do more to tackle its climate footprint, before the caves were destroyed.

In 2018, the Board was among a group of activist investors who led a shareholder revolt at the company’s annual general meeting, filing a climate-change motion which called on the firm to quit coal-lobbying groups (News, 23 March 2018).

The Pensions Board has also been lobbying Rio Tinto and other mining companies to improve the safety record of tailings dams, which store waste materials from mines, but can be prone to catastrophic collapses (News, 8 February 2019).

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