Native American San Carlos Apache tribe takes on BHP, Rio Tinto over plans to mine sacred site
A group of Native Americans in Arizona are taking on two Australian resources giants to try to save a sacred desert campground from being destroyed by a huge mining development.
Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of Australia’s Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, plans to turn the area around the Oak Flat campsite in the Tonto National Forest into the biggest copper mine in North America.
Members of the local San Carlos Apache tribe said Oak Flat was a sacred place where they had held religious and cultural ceremonies for centuries.
“It is no different to what people can relate to about Mount Sinai,” Apache tribal leader Wendsler Nosie said.
The company has warned the underground mining operation could eventually cause Oak Flat to sink by 300 metres, making it inaccessible to the public.
“If this is destroyed it can never come back to us and that is the one thing I don’t think Resolution Copper understands or sees,” 16-year-old Apache activist Naelyn Pike said.
Campground lost in controversial land-swap deal
Ever since white settlement, Native Americans have struggled to hold onto their land, but the company argued the mine could coexist with the local community.
“We don’t have too much say in the location of the resource that we are developing,” Resolution Copper project director Andrew Taplin said.
The company acquired the land through a controversial land-swap deal approved by the US Government in December.
Under the deal, Resolution Copper will take control of more than 970 hectares of copper-rich land around Oak Flat, and the company will transfer more than 2,140 hectares acres of privately owned land across the state to the US Forest Service.
After failing to get the deal through Congress for years, Arizona Republican Senator John McCain attached it at the last minute to a “must-pass” spending bill — the 1,600-page National Defence Authorisation Act — late last year.
“It’s downright crazy, dirty [and] disrespectful,” Mr Nosie, who is spearheading the fight against the mine, said.
The company has started exploratory work on the site but will not start full-scale production for years.
Project would have benefits for community: miner
Opponents are lobbying members of Congress to pass the Save Oak Flat Act, a piece of legislation from Arizona Democratic Representative Raul M Grijalva that would repeal the land-swap deal.
Resolution Copper has already invested more than $1 billion in the development it says is one of the top five undeveloped copper resources in the world.
Project director Mr Taplin said the project would have huge benefits for the local community.
“The mine will have a life of 40 years and, over the life of the project, will develop over $60 billion worth of economic benefits,” he said.
That would include thousands of jobs — including for Apaches living on the nearby San Carlos Reservation, which has some of the highest unemployment levels in the state.
“Employment is something we are going to need on our reservation,” Mike Betom, an employee of Resolution Copper and a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe who supports the mine, said.
The company said 25 of its current employees were Apache, 15 per cent of the total workforce.
“I think it will eventually provide opportunities for [tribe] members, education benefits, scholarships, community partnerships,” Mr Betom said.
“There are a number of other things that can happen between the mining company and the San Carlos reservation if they ever decide to come to the table and talk.”
Arizona is one of the most heavily mined parts of the United States. The region where the Resolution Copper project is underway has been home to mining operations for over a century.
As part of the development, the company is rehabilitating large tracts of land previously damaged by mining operations.
The company said it would continue to consult with the community as it went through the permit process, but Mr Nosie said he and his supporters would not give up their fight to stop the project.
“This time we are going to hang onto the land, we are going to hang onto what God created, we are going to hang onto the spirituality of this place,” he said.
Source: ABC Online