Three executives from the mining company that detonated a 46,000-year-old Indigenous Australian heritage site to expand an iron ore mine—and later insisted that it did nothing wrong—are leaving the company.
Rio Tinto destroyed the Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 rock shelters in the Pilbara region of Western Australia in May 2020, blasting out of existence a site of major cultural importance to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura People (PKKP). Technically, the firm did this in complete compliance with the law, as it secured consent from a minister years earlier under Section 18 of Australia’s Aboriginal Heritage Act. In 2014 Rio Tinto did fund a final archaeological expedition to extract items of importance from the rock shelters, turning up findings the Sydney Morning Herald reported “significance exceeded all expectations” such as grinding and pounding stones, a 28,000-year-old bone tool, and parts of a 4,000-year-old belt made of human hair.
The archaeologists in the expedition recommended that the Juukan 1 and Juukan 2 sites be subject to further exploration. Instead, Rio Tinto commenced with the detonation, claiming at the last minute the charges couldn’t be safely removed. The company then issued a statement claiming it had worked “constructively together with the PKKP people on a range of heritage matters” and to “protect places of cultural significance to the group.” It seemingly apologized in June, but iron ore business head Chris Salisbury later clarified that the company didn’t actually regret blowing up the site, just the “distress the event caused.”
Now out at Rio Tinto, according to CNN, are CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques, Salisbury, and corporate relations group executive Simone Nivens. Jacques will remain until his successor chosen or at the end of March. Salisbury is stepping down immediately, and both he and Nivens will leave the company entirely at the end of the year. Though the executives collectively will be penalized by around $5 million in bonuses, they will still collect an exit payment including long-term bonuses.
Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson told CNN in a statement, “what happened at Juukan was wrong. 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.”
CEO Jamie Lowe of the National Native Title Council, which represents Indigenous groups in Australia, tweeted that while the NTTC “welcomes” the executives’ ousting, “this is not the end.”
“We cannot and will not allow this type of devastation to occur ever again,” the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation told the New York Times in a statement.
Hesta, a superannuation fund which holds a stake in Rio Tinto, previously demanded a public inquiry and called the executives’ removal inadequate.
“Mining companies that fail to negotiate fairly and in good faith with traditional owners expose the company to reputational and legal risk,” the fund said, according to the Guardian. “These risks increase the longer these agreements are in place. Without an independent review, we cannot adequately assess these risks and understand how they may impact value. We have lost confidence that the company can do this on their own.”
Allan Fels, an economist and lawyer consulted by Hesta, told the Guardian, “there are potential unconscionable conduct issues, both at the legal and ethical level. They need to be investigated independently.”
According to a review conducted by the paper, mining companies have obtained ministerial permission to destroy more than 100 ancient indigenous sites in Western Australia alone. This is far from Rio Tinto’s first rodeo at violating human rights. The company has also been accused of “grossly unethical conduct” by the Norwegian pension fund. Indigenous Australian lawyer and land rights activist Noel Pearson told the Times the resignations were a major step forward and that, “in the past, Indigenous people would have nobody to rely on in the case of vandalism like this.” But University of Queensland sociologist Kristen Lyons told the paper that nothing had changed about structural laws that advantage corporations over Indigenous peoples, nor did the executives’ departures “address the profound inequity in who has rights over decision making.”