Rio Tinto cuts bonuses for destruction of Aboriginal site

The world’s biggest iron ore miner is cutting the bonuses of three senior executives by almost £4m following the destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site – but they will still keep their jobs. 

Rio Tinto – whose shares are listed on the FTSE 100 index in London – blew up the two ancient caves in Pilbara, Western Australia in May to make way for a new mine. 

The levelling of the sacred Juukan Gorge rock shelters – which were nine times older than Stonehenge – was opposed by the local Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people (PKKP). 

Sacred rage: A protester at a rally outside Rio Tinto¿s office in Perth, in June this year

Sacred rage: A protester at a rally outside Rio Tinto¿s office in Perth, in June this year

Sacred rage: A protester at a rally outside Rio Tinto’s office in Perth, in June this year

And it fuelled a wider public outcry that led to an inquiry into how the blast was legally sanctioned. 

The caves were among the oldest historic sites in Australia and showed evidence of continuous human habitation dating back 46,000 years. Rio Tinto said yesterday that while the company ‘had obtained legal authority’ to destroy the mines, the move ‘fell short of the standards and internal guidance that Rio Tinto sets for itself over and above its legal obligations’. 

Rio Tinto cut the bonus of chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques by £2.7m. 

He was paid £5.8m last year and last week admitted he had not read an archaeological report commissioned by the firm that concluded the rock shelters were of the ‘highest archaeological significance in Australia’. 

Chris Salisbury, chief executive of its iron ore business, and Simone Niven, group executive of corporate relations, will lose pay outs of more than £500,000 each. Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said: ‘It is clear that no single individual or error was responsible for the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters, but 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.’ 

But the financial penalties fell short of the management overhaul demanded by some investors who have criticised Rio Tinto’s leadership and lack of accountability. ‘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,’ said a spokesman for shareholder advocacy group the Australasian Corporate Centre for Responsibility.

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

Louise Davidson, chief executive of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, said: ‘Remuneration appears to be the only sanction applied to executives. This raises the question – does the company [Rio Tinto] feel that £4m is the right price for the destruction of cultural heritage?’ 

After the caves were destroyed, PKKP representative John Ashburton said losing the site was a ‘devastating blow’. 

‘There are less than a handful of known Aboriginal sites in Australia that are as old as this one. Its importance cannot be underestimated,’ he said. 

‘Our people are deeply troubled and saddened by the destruction of these rock shelters and are grieving the loss of connection to our ancestors as well as our land.’

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