• Rio Tinto Chairman Simon Thompson. (AAP)Source: AAP
Rio Tinto Chairman Simon Thompson says he accepts responsibility for destroying the 46,000-year-old caves, and will join the list of executives who have quit the company in the wake of the blast.
Douglas Smith

3 Mar 2021 - 3:37 PM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2021 - 3:43 PM

The chairman of mining giant Rio Tinto will step down within the next year, claiming responsibility for the destruction of the 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge caves in Western Australia last year. 

In a statement from the company, Simon Thompson apologised for the destruction of two sacred sites, blown up in the course of mine expansion. 

“As chairman, I am ultimately accountable for the failings that led to this tragic event,” read the statement. 

“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.

“Over the past eight months, we have engaged extensively with investors, government, civil society, Indigenous leaders and, most importantly, Traditional Owners to learn the lessons from Juukan Gorge.”

Gundjitmara Djabwurrung man and CEO of the National Native Title Council (NNTC), Jamie Lowe, welcomed the news and said it was a “necessary” step, one which the NNTC called for last year. 

“We think the cultural shift within Rio Tinto needed to happen immediately [after the caves' destruction],” Mr Lowe told ABC 24 on Tuesday.

“I guess the next [question] for us [is] who's the next person to drive the cultural shift within Rio [Tinto] to drive the change necessary to keep First Nations' heritage and culture.

“They ignored our advice from the outset [that] this needs to be a First Nations review.”

Following the release of Rio Tinto's statement today, Mr Lowe dismissed Mr Thompson's sentiments.

"I think actions speak louder than words," he said. 

"We have seen significant slippage... in the protection and the relationships with First Nations people within Australia and across the globe.

"So... I would refute Simon's comments."

Rio Tinto intentionally destroyed the caves in May last year, against the wishes of the Traditional Owners, the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) and in full knowledge of the cultural and archaeological significance of the sites. 

Prior to their destruction, the caves showed evidence of continuous human occupation going back 46,000 years, the longest of any inland cave in Australia. 

Mr Thompson is the latest departure from the company following the resignations of several executives last year.

The PKKP have declined to comment on Mr Thompson’s exit.

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