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Protesters rally outside the Rio Tinto office after the destruction of Australian Indigenous sacred sites in Perth, June 9, 2020.
The destruction prompted protests outside Rio Tinto's offices last yearImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/AAP Image/R. Wainwright

Rio Tinto chairman leaves over Indigenous sites' destruction

March 3, 2021

After months of public backlash, Simon Thompson said he was ultimately accountable for the destruction of sacred sites at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.


The destruction of sacred Indigenous burial sites in Australia has led to the departure of Simon Thompson, the chairman of mining giant Rio Tinto. Thompson said Wednesday that he was accountable and would not seek reelection as a board director next year. 

"As a chairman, I am ultimately accountable for the failings that led to this tragic event," Thompson said in a statement. 

In May the mining company had blown up 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia.

The caves were one of the earliest known locations inhabited by Australia’s Indigenous people and had contained some of the oldest Aboriginal artifacts ever found in the country. 

"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," Thompson said.  

The site was considered sacred by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinkura (PKKP) people of Western Australia.

Public backlash and investor revolt

Chief Executive of the National Native Title Council Jamie Lowe described Thompson’s departure as a necessary step that indigenous people had been demanding since the rock shelters were blown-up. 

"We think the cultural shift within Rio Tinto needed to happen immediately and it's too bad it's taken some eight months," Lowe said. 

Three other Rio Tinto executives — Chris Salisbury, Simone Niven, and Chief Executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques— were also forced out due to shareholder anger at the destruction which outraged traditional owners of the gorge.  

Government reaction

Although Rio Tinto had been given permission by the state government to blast the area, the PKKP said that they had warned that the placement of some explosives would destroy the rock shelters.

A parliamentary inquiry into the destruction has recommended that the mining giant pay restitution, rebuild the destroyed site, and commit to a permanent moratorium on mining in the area. 

The Western Australian government has also promised to update the Indigenous heritage laws that allowed Rio Tinto to legally destroy the sacred sites.

jm/msh (AP, AFP)

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