The CEO of the world’s second largest mining company, Rio Tinto, today announced his resignation after months of outrage over the destruction of an ancient rock shelter in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge.
Jean-Sébastien Jacques will stay on at the company until March 31, 2021, or until a successor is appointed to "ensure business continuity".
The whole saga began back in 2013 when Rio Tinto received permission to damage a section of the Juukan Gorge, in Australia’s barren but mineral-rich Pilbara region in the country’s northwest. Their plan was to expand their iron ore mining operations, but a subsequent archaeological examination identified a cave that had been occupied by Indigenous people for twice as long as previously thought.
The cave, dubbed Juukan 2, was found to be full of stone tools and cultural artefacts, the oldest of which were dated at 46,000 years. Surprisingly, archaeologists also realised there’d been no break in occupation during the ice age between 23,000 and 19,000 years ago. This is significant because most inland Australian sites became too dry and uninhabitable, forcing people to migrate to the coasts. Juukan 2 was the only site in inland Australia where this wasn’t the case.
Just as significantly, archaeologists discovered a 4,000 year old length of plaited human hair, which was later revealed to have been woven together from the hair of several different people. DNA analysis revealed a direct line of descendancy with the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people, who still call the region home today.
Archeologist Dr Michael Slack, who led the dig, told the Guardian that the cave harboured once-in-a-lifetime discoveries.
“It was the sort of site you do not get very often, you could have worked there for years,” he said. “How significant does something have to be, to be valued by wider society?” he asked journalist Calla Wahlquist.
From 2014 onwards there were several efforts to preserve the cave, including an urgent request on behalf of its traditional owners just five days before its destruction.
Tragically the cave was demolished on 23 May 2020, enabling Rio Tinto to expand its Brockman 4 mine. What the company didn’t anticipate, however, was the level of public outcry.
In June the company made a public apology, which was followed by the commencement of an official inquiry. The “Inquiry into the destruction of 46,000 year old caves at the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia” is set to report its findings by 9 December 2020.
Finally, on Friday, September 11, Rio Tinto’s CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques announced he would be standing down, along with iron ore head, Chris Salisbury, and corporate affairs boss, Simone Niven.
"What happened at Juukan was wrong and 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," Rio chairman Simon Thompson said in a statement.
The company admits, however, that the three leaving employees will still be eligible to claim their bonuses.