Rio Tinto chairman resigns over Aboriginal site destruction

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Juukan Gorge in Western Australia is one of the earliest known sites occupied by Aboriginals in Australia, and its destruction by Rio Tinto sparked widespread revulsion

Rio Tinto's chairman announced Wednesday he would step down over the mining giant's destruction of an ancient Aboriginal site to expand an iron ore mine.

The revelation Rio had blown up the 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge in Western Australia sparked a public backlash and investor revolt that led the CEO and two top executives to resign in September.

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

Rio Tinto chairman Simon Thompson said the company's successes in 2020 -- which saw it pay out a record dividend to investors on the back of booming iron ore prices -- had been "overshadowed" by the destruction.

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

Thompson said he would not seek re-election at the company's annual general meetings in 2022, allowing a transition period until a replacement is appointed.

He called the destruction "a source of personal sadness and deep regret, as well as being a clear breach of our values as a company".

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

Though Rio Tinto had permission from the state government to blast in the area, the PKKP said they had warned that the placement of some explosives would destroy two heritage rock shelters.

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

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