CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Rio Tinto chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques will leave the Anglo-Australian mining giant by March over the destruction of Australian Indigenous sacred sites to access iron ore, the company said on Friday. "Significant stakeholders have expressed concerns about executive accountability for the failings identified," Rio Tinto said in a statement.
By mutual agreement, Jacques will step down once a replacement has been appointed or on March 31, whichever happens sooner, the statement said. Executives Chris Salisbury and Simone Niven will leave the company on December 31.
Rio Tinto announced last month that Jacques would lose $3.5 million in bonuses and Salisbury and Niven around $700,000 each over the destruction in May of two rock shelters in Juukan George in Western Australia state that had been inhabited for 46,000 years. Rio Tinto concluded in an internal review last month that there was "no single root cause or error that directly resulted in the destruction of the rock shelters."
But internal documents revealed last week that Rio Tinto had engaged a law firm in case the traditional owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, applied for a court injunction to save the rock shelters. The Western Australian government has promised to update Indigenous heritage laws that allowed Rio Tinto to legally destroy the sacred sites.
Jamie Lowe, chief executive of the National Native Title Council, which represents Australia's traditional owners of the land, said he had called on Rio Tinto to take more action than cutting executive bonuses. Lowe welcomed the decision to replace the three executives.
"There needs to be a consistent theme of them showing that they are conscious of Aboriginal cultural heritage and its protection," Lowe said of mining companies.
The rock shelters' traditional owners had no comment to make on the Rio Tinto leadership changes, Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura Aboriginal Corp. said. "We will continue to work with Rio Tinto in the aftermath of the Juukan Gorge disaster. Our focus continues to rest heavily on preserving Aboriginal heritage and advocating for wide-ranging changes to ensure a tragedy like this never happens again," the corporation said in a statement.
"We cannot and will not allow this type of devastation to occur ever again," the statement added.