Rio Tinto Chairman Stepping Down over Juukan Gorge Destruction

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Juukan Gorge - Destroyed by Rio Tinto
Juukan Gorge - Destroyed by Rio Tinto

MELBOURNE, Australia- Mining – Rio Tinto Chairman Simon Thompson has informed the Board that he will not seek re-election as a non-executive director at the 2022 annual general meetings (AGMs) of Rio Tinto plc and Rio Tinto Limited. Sam Laidlaw, senior independent director of Rio Tinto plc, and Simon McKeon, senior independent director of Rio Tinto Limited, will now therefore jointly lead the search for Simon’s successor as Chair.

The decision of Thompson came following the destruction of the Juukan Gorge in Australia.

The gorge is known primarily for a cave that was the only inland site in Australia to show signs of continuous human occupation for over 46,000 years, including through the last ice age, but was deliberately destroyed by mining company Rio Tinto in May 2020.

Prior to its destruction, the cave in Juukan Gorge was a sacred site for the traditional owners of the land, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (Binigura) peoples. (Source Wikipedia)

Rio Tinto On Juukan Gorge Destruction

Rio Tinto Issued this apology:

We apologise unreservedly to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people, and to people across Australia and beyond, for the destruction of Juukan Gorge.

In allowing the destruction of Juukan Gorge to occur, we fell far short of our values as a company and breached the trust placed in us by the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we operate. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that the destruction of a site of such exceptional cultural significance never happens again, to earn back the trust that has been lost and to re-establish our leadership in communities and social performance.

Rio Tinto says, “Our relationship with the PKKP people extends over more than 17 years, with initial agreements covering our operations on PKKP land at Brockman 4 signed in 2006 and 2011. The decision to destroy the rock shelters was taken nearly eight years ago but, because mining is such a long-cycle industry, that decision was not actually implemented until 2020.

“Internal and external reviews of the events leading to the blasting of the rock shelters at Juukan Gorge have highlighted deficiencies in how our partnership with the PKKP people was managed, a lack of integration of our heritage management with our front- line operational teams, and a work culture that was too focused on business performance and not enough on building and maintaining relationships with Traditional Owners.

“The archaeological and ethnographic reports received in 2013/14 should have triggered an internal review of the implications of this material new information for the mine development plans. Such a review did not take place. Following completion of the archaeological surveys and other mitigation measures agreed with the PKKP people in 2014, the site was reclassified as ‘cleared’ for mining and removed from relevant risk registers. As a consequence, knowledge and awareness of the location and significance of the site was progressively lost. Further opportunities to revise the mine plan were missed in 2018, when the final archaeological report was received, and again during 2019/20”.

Sam Laidlaw said: “The Board accepts Simon’s decision and is grateful that he has agreed to provide an important period of stability and support for Jakob and the new executive team ahead of the AGMs in 2022. This will allow an orderly process for the appointment of our new Chair and other key Board members. The Board wishes to thank Simon for his commitment and continuing leadership during this challenging period for Rio Tinto.”

Simon Thompson said: “I am proud of Rio Tinto’s achievements in 2020, including our outstanding response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a second successive fatality-free year, significant progress with our climate change strategy, and strong shareholder returns. However, these successes were overshadowed by the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters at the Brockman 4 operations in Australia and, as Chairman, I am ultimately accountable for the failings that led to this tragic event.

“Over the past eight months, we have engaged extensively with investors, government, civil society, Indigenous leaders and, most importantly, Traditional Owners to learn the lessons from Juukan Gorge. We have taken decisive action to address the weaknesses identified in our risk management and governance, while also acknowledging the need to improve our work culture and to rebuild relationships. In January, we appointed a new Chief Executive, Jakob Stausholm, who has moved swiftly to appoint his new executive team and has identified his key priorities to rebuild the trust that we have lost.

“Throughout my seven years on the Rio Tinto Board, I have endeavoured to promote a progressive environmental, social and governance agenda. While I am pleased with the progress we have made in many areas, the tragic events at Juukan Gorge are a source of personal sadness and deep regret, as well as being a clear breach of our values as a company.”

In addition, Michael L’Estrange, a non-executive director, will retire from the Board at the conclusion of the 2021 AGMs.

Simon Thompson said: “Following significant surgery in February, Michael has decided after careful consideration that he should reduce his workload and will not therefore be seeking re-election as a non-executive director at the forthcoming AGMs. The entire Board wishes Michael a full and speedy recovery and thanks him for his outstanding contribution. Rio Tinto will greatly miss his insights and wise counsel.”

Michael L’Estrange said: “It has been an honour to have had the opportunity to serve on the Rio Tinto Board for what will be six and a half years. I wish Jakob and the new executive well for the future as they build on Rio Tinto’s many strengths and continue to implement the critical changes aimed at ensuring that an occurrence such as the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters never happens again.”