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Rio Tinto chief to step down over destruction of ancient aboriginal caves

Sydney, Australia, Sep 11 (efe-epa).- Rio Tinto chief Jean-Sébastien Jacques and two other senior executives are to step down over criticism of the mining company’s destruction in May of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters to access iron ore.

By “mutual agreement,” Jacques, the company’s executive director and group chief executive, will step down. He will remain with the group until March 2021 at the latest, a group statement to the Australian Stock Exchange on Friday said.

Chris Salisbury, iron ore chief executive and Simone Niven, group corporate relations executive, will step down with immediate effect and leave the group on Dec. 31.

The decision comes after the publication on Aug. 24 of an internal board review on the destruction of the caves near the Juukan gorge, a remote sacred area for the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) aboriginal people and located in the region of Pilbara, in the Australian Northwest.

The statement said that “significant stakeholders have expressed concerns about executive accountability of failings identified.”

Chairman Simon Thompson said that “we have listened to our stakeholders’ concerns that a lack of individual accountability undermines the group’s ability to rebuild that trust and to move forward to implement changes identified in the Board Review.”

He went on to thank the executives for their contributions.

“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,” Thompson said.

A committee of the Australian Senate plans to visit the site as part of its inquiry into the event, which caused widespread investor and public backlash in the country, especially among indigenous communities.

In August, Jacques said “the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters should not have occurred,” referring to the blasts that sought access to AU$135 million ($98 million) worth of high-grade iron ore.

Rio Tinto had apparently obtained ministerial consent to damage the caves in 2013, but a year later an archaeological dig unearthed artifacts such as a 4,000-year-old plait of human hair. The caves were the only inland site in the country occupied by humans through the Ice Age.

It is not the first time that indigenous heritage has been destroyed and it might not be the last. A site on the Burrup Peninsula, in the northwest of the country, has more than 1 million rock carvings, and is under threat by a gas project, wrote Samantha Hepburn of the law school of the Deakin University in The Conversation in May. EFE-EPA

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