Fury after Rio Tinto destroys 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cave shelters

The future of the boss of Rio Tinto was hanging in the balance last night as the crisis over the destruction of two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal cave shel- ters intensified.

The FTSE 100 mining giant’s board met overnight in Australia to determine whether chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and other senior figures should be sacked.

Two of the most powerful independent directors, former Centrica boss Sam Laidlaw and ex-Royal Dutch Shell finance head Simon Henry, want tough action.

Sacred site: Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto admitted damaging the the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelter in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia

Sacred site: Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto admitted damaging the the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelter in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia

Sacred site: Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto admitted damaging the the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge rock shelter in the remote Pilbara region of Western Australia

It follows outrage over a bungled response that saw Rio cut the bonuses of Jacques and two other executives – but let them keep their jobs.

The crisis has infuriated shareholders in the UK and Australia, where Rio has vast operations.

The Church of England pensions fund is the latest investor to speak out, declaring that the decision merely to cut bonuses was ‘not sufficient’.

Adam Matthews, director of ethics and engagement on the Church’s pensions board, said: ‘It’s very much a test for the board how serious their response is.

‘It’s clear that investors don’t feel that the measures they’ve outlined are sufficient.’

Bigwigs lead boardroom revolt 

Old Etonian Laidlaw

Old Etonian Laidlaw

Simon Henry

Simon Henry

Board members Sam Laidlaw, 64 (left) and Simon Henry (right) are  leading the backlash against over the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves

The boardroom backlash over the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves has been led by City heavyweights Sam Laidlaw and Simon Henry.

Both have been non-executive directors at Rio Tinto since 2017 and are calling for stronger disciplinary action.

Old Etonian Laidlaw, 64 (above left), was the chief executive of British Gas owner Centrica from 2006 to 2014 and has held senior positions at Chevron, HSBC and Hanson and has served on the UK Prime Minister’s business advisory group.

Henry, 59 (above right ), spent more than 30 years at Royal Dutch Shell, most notably as chief financial officer from 2009 to 2017. He also sits on the board of Lloyds Banking Group and the Government’s defence audit committee.

 

Rio destroyed the sites in the Juukan Gorge, Western Australia, in May as part of plans to expand an iron ore mine.

Archaeologists insisted the caves were of immense value, with one showing evidence it had been occupied for 46,000 years by the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people. The PKKP people said the destruction was ‘soul-destroying’.

The industry’s relationship with indigenous communities has been slammed by politicians including ex-prime minister Kevin Rudd, who said the firm would be known as ‘Rio TNT’.

He said: ‘Rio Tinto has blown up its own reputation as anything approximating a responsible corporate citizen in Australia.

‘The executives responsible for this decision should no longer be executives. For the company, I think their reputation now is mud.’

Rio Tinto's board met overnight in Australia to determine whether chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and other senior figures should be sacked

Rio Tinto's board met overnight in Australia to determine whether chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and other senior figures should be sacked

Rio Tinto’s board met overnight in Australia to determine whether chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques and other senior figures should be sacked 

Indigenous leaders on the National Native Title Council have demanded a management ‘clean-out’.

They said: ‘What led to the catastrophic destruction of Juukan Gorge was a result of the enormous cultural and values deficit within Rio Tinto.

The decision to slash executive bonuses has been rightfully regarded as falling significantly short of anything approaching appropriate accountability.’

Rio had permission from the regional government to blow them up but following the outcry its heritage laws are being redrafted.

Jacques and two other executives – Chris Salisbury and Simone Niven – could be asked to stand down. After an internal investigation they have had their 2020 bonuses docked. In 2019 the equivalent bonus was about £4million.

Jacques, 48, has earned £17.2million since he took over as chief executive in 2016.

Laidlaw and Henry are said to be at loggerheads with other board members and are urging the chairman to take a hard line. Rio declined to comment.

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