A Rio Tinto alumina refinery. Picture: REUTERS
A Rio Tinto alumina refinery. Picture: REUTERS

Sydney — Rio Tinto Group chair Simon Thompson will not seek re-election at the miner’s annual meeting in 2022, saying that he’s accountable for the failings that led to the destruction of an ancient Aboriginal site in Australia in 2020.

The fallout from Rio’s actions at Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara iron ore region of Western Australia last May has already led to the departure of former CEO Jean-Sébastien Jacques and other senior executives, while Thompson himself had come under pressure from investors to step down.

“While I am pleased with the progress we have made in many areas, 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 in a statement. “As chair, I am ultimately accountable for the failings that led to this tragic event.”

New CEO Jakob Stausholm, who was appointed in December and shuffled his senior management ranks last month, says he wants to re-establish the company as a trusted partner for host communities. Thompson’s decision comes as Rio also faces fresh problems on a different continent over the development of a huge copper mine in Arizona involving Native American land.

“The decision today allows for a fresh perspective and a renewed board focus on repairing and building stronger links with indigenous communities in the countries in which Rio operates,” said Debby Blakey, CEO of $37bn pension fund Hesta. “Rigorous board oversight and governance will be crucial to achieving future progress in this regard.”

In December, AustralianSuper, the largest pension fund in the nation where Rio generates the bulk of its profits, called for “changes of personnel” on the firm’s board after its response to the Juukan Gorge incident.

In August, Thompson initially backed Jacques and others leaders, saying they were the right executives to lead Rio’s effort to rebuild relations with Aboriginal Australian communities, only to reverse course weeks later under a barrage of pressure from investors. After a decision to replace the executives, Thompson said in a September interview he believed he should remain in the post to guide the tasks of appointing a new top leader and overhauling the miner’s procedures.

Juukan Gorge had exposed Rio’s “blindness” on heritage protection, said Joe Dortch, a Perth-based spokesperson for the Australian Association of Consulting Archaeologists. “Across the company there’s a recognition that there was blindness,” he said, adding that Rio is showing a readiness to communicate better and be more open in its dealings with indigenous landowners.

A spokesperson for the PKKP Aboriginal Corporation, which administers the traditional lands that encompass Juukan Gorge, declined to comment on Rio’s announcement.

Senior independent directors Sam Laidlaw and Simon McKeon will lead the search for a new chair, the London-based company said. It also announced that non-executive director Michael L’Estrange, who led an internal review of Rio’s heritage management processes in the wake of Juukan Gorge, will retire from the board at the conclusion of the 2021 AGM.

Rio shares rose 2% in Sydney on Wednesday, lagging a 2.9% gain in the S&P/ASX 200 resources sub-index.

Bloomberg

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