Rio Tinto boss loses millions over Aboriginal cave fiasco

The FTSE 100 mining company initially defended the blasting as legal but has since apologised and vowed to work with Aboriginal communities

Protest
The destruction of Juukan Gorge in Western Australia by Rio Tinto sparked protests outside the FTSE 100 firm's offices in Perth Credit: RICHARD WAINWRIGHT/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The boss of Rio Tinto is to miss out on almost £3m of pay after it blew up one of Australia's oldest archaeological sites to make way for an iron ore mine.

Jean-Sebastien Jacques will lose about £2.7m in bonuses following an outcry over the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cave at Juukan Gorge, Western Australia - a rock shelter described as one of the most significant finds in the country's history.

Mining titan Rio stripped Mr Jacques and other executives of their bonuses after an internal review which concluded that the destruction in May was caused by a string of mistakes rather than any one person's decision. The company stopped short of firing any members of staff.

Investors and critics alike attacked the report's findings amid calls for executives to be axed.

The Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, which represents dozens of large pension funds, hit out at the review for failing to deliver "any meaningful accountability".

Calling instead for an independent, external investigation, the council's chief executive Louise Davidson said: "Remuneration appears to be the only sanction applied to executives. This raises the question – does the company feel that £4m is the right price for the destruction of cultural heritage?"

The Australasian Corporate Centre for Responsibility campaign group said that the review hadn't gone far enough.

It said: “Irreplaceable cultural heritage has been lost and the only consequence for any of the senior leadership at Rio is the loss of a bonus — not even their job.

“Rio’s board could have acted decisively. This soft touch, public relations-oriented review calls into question the suitability of every board member."

Reconciliation Australia – a group that promotes dialogue between Aboriginal groups and government bodies – called the report's findings a “breathtaking breach of a respectful relationship”.

Mr Jacques will lose about £2.7m in bonuses, while iron ore division chief  Chris Salisbury and corporate relations head Simone Niven will also lose about £600,000 and £525,000 respectively.

Mr Salisbury sold shares worth more than £600,000 earlier this month. Rio did not respond to questions about whether Mr Salisbury's transaction was related to the investigation. 

The company had been warned in 2018 that the Juukan Gorge cave in Western Australia was a priceless part of the nation's cultural heritage and one of a handful of places occupied since the last ice age.

A dig at the site discovered a wealth of sacred artifacts including a 4,000 year old plait of human hair. 

Juukan Gorge in Western Australia before it was destroyed by Rio Tinto  Credit: PETER PARKS/AFP via Getty Images

Mr Jacques has been criticised for demolishing the prehistoric site so that Rio could access iron ore deposits worth £135m.

An investigation into the incident has revealed that Rio had reviewed four options for the site, three of which did not involve its destruction - but that Aboriginal groups were only informed about the most drastic one.

Rio said on Monday that its review had found "no single root cause or error that directly resulted in the destruction of the rock shelters", but rather that a series of flawed decisions that had led to the incident.

Chairman Simon Thompson said: "There were numerous missed opportunities over almost a decade and the company failed to uphold one of Rio Tinto's core values - respect for local communities and for their heritage."

Archaeologists uncovered 7,000 finds at Juukan Gorge in 2014, including a 28,000-year-old kangaroo bone pick which is thought to be Australia’s oldest known bone tool. 

The Western Australian government is reviewing the laws protecting Aboriginal sites from mining companies operating in the state.

Rio has previously shrugged off a number of scandals, including a fine of £27.4m in the UK for overstating the value of African coal assets, and allegations of "multiple human rights violations" at a mine on  the island of Bougainville, formerly part of Papau New Guinea.

The company's copper and gold mine  at the site turned rivers in the area blue, whilst polluting fields and leaving the surrounding valleys "resembling a moonscape," according to the Human Rights Law Centre in a report earlier this year.

At the time a Rio spokesman said: "Bougainville Copper Limited was compliant with applicable regulatory requirements up until the mine’s operations were suspended in 1989.”

Stephen Barrie, deputy director of ethics at shareholder the Church of England Pensions Board, said: “We will be considering Rio Tinto’s board review of cultural heritage management, and plan on engaging with the company in the coming weeks."

Shares rose 2.2pc in London.