Phoenix, Arizona, United States – Indigenous and environmental groups in the United States are suing the US Forest Service (USFS) in an attempt to prevent the transfer of more than 9.7 square kilometers (2,400 acres) of land in Arizona to a mining company for potential development.
Co-plaintiffs in the case, including the Inter Tribal Association of Arizona and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, filed a January 22 lawsuit against a proposed copper mine about 100 km to the east of Phoenix which they believe would harm the local environment.
“Without question, the proposed mine poses a huge threat to the water quality and water supply in our region,” said Shan Lewis, vice president of the Fort Mojave Indian tribe and president of the Arizona Inter Tribal Association in a written statement.
“For our 21 member tribes, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a magnifying glass on the basic need to protect and preserve healthy water supplies in Arizona.”
Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of multinational mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP, has proposed to build a mine to dig an undeveloped copper deposit about two kilometers underground. They say the mine will produce 120,000 tonnes of ore per day.
The US Department of Agriculture also claims the copper deposit is one of the largest in the world, containing around 1.7 billion metric tons.
Arnaud Soirat, managing director of copper and diamonds at Rio Tinto, said the company has not yet committed to fully invest in the project as this decision will depend on the authorization processes and a feasibility study that will be conducted over several years.
“Rio Tinto is committed to continuously engage with Native American tribes over the next few years to obtain consent, before any potential decision by partners to invest in the development of this project,” Soirat told Al Jazeera in an email.
But this month’s trial is not the first or the only development challenge proposed in the region.
Several indigenous groups, including the San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Tonto Apache Tribe, and the Yavapai-Prescott Indian Tribe, consider Chi’chil Bildagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, to be sacred land.
The Oak Flat plot is in the Tonto National Forest, just east of the mining town of Superior, Arizona, where Resolution Copper is based. For thousands of years, tribes have visited the region’s Emory oak groves to hold religious and coming-of-age ceremonies and collect traditional medicines.
Rio Tinto is committed to continued engagement with Native American tribes over the next several years to obtain consent, prior to any potential partner decision to invest in the development of this project.
In documents previously submitted to Congress, John Welch, a former historic conservation officer of the White Mountain Apache tribe and professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada, called the area “the best set of Apache archaeological sites ever documented,” period, period ”.
Resolution Copper’s mining proposal includes block caving, a method of drilling a well and digging the ground under the orebody, causing it to collapse under its own weight. The crushed ore would then be transported underground for processing.
On the surface, the USFS says the technique would result in a crater at least 2.8 kilometers in diameter and more than 300 meters deep.
Indigenous groups claim it would destroy much of Oak Flat and threaten petroglyphs, burial grounds and Apache Leap, a cliff where Apache warriors jumped to their deaths in the 1870s to avoid being captured by the US Army.
Apache Stronghold, a grassroots indigenous organization led by Wendsler Nosie Sr, former president of the San Carlos Apache tribe, sued the US government on Jan.12 over the proposed development.
The lawsuit, separate from the one filed on January 22, alleges that the US government violated the “fair trial and the trust and fiduciary obligations” of the Western Apache peoples over their “religious freedom rights, treaty rights and rights. land rights ”by moving forward with the land exchange process.
In an effort to protect the land from damage until their case is heard, Apache Stronghold also filed a property lien in an Arizona court on January 13, claiming the United States had no legal right to transfer the land.
In court documents, the San Carlos Apache tribe claims their land claims to the area are named in the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe, which relied on historical maps showing much of the current state of Arizona , including Oak Flat, as territory owned by the Apache. , or Ndee (the people) as they call themselves.
“The United States government has never legally taken Chi’chil Bildagoteel from us. It is still the land of the Apache people, ”Nosie said in a written statement attached to the court record.
“What was once gunpowder and disease is now replaced by bureaucratic neglect and a mythologized past that treats us, as indigenous people, as something invisible or missing,” Nosie said. “We are not.”
On January 21, the Arizona court honored the lien, effectively protecting the land until the case is decided, including after possible appeals. But the court rejected a request to prevent the USFS from issuing a final environmental impact statement until the lawsuit is resolved.
A day later, the department released the project’s final environmental impact report, which kicked off the clock to hand Oak Flat over to Resolution Copper. A 45-day public comment period has begun. Due to recent decisions, the Oak Flat parcel cannot be delivered before March 11.
Apache Stronghold is due to file its preliminary injunction application on February 3 to prevent the transfer of Oak Flat to the mining company. The injunction would block the transfer of the land, which would otherwise have to take place before March 16, until the full trial is heard – which could take months, if not years.
The US Department of Agriculture told Al Jazeera it was not commenting on the continuing litigation.
While the future of the project and ongoing litigation is unclear, some US lawmakers have already said they intend to try to prevent the planned land swap from moving forward.
Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, told Al Jazeera in an email that he plans to introduce the Save Oak Flat Act to Congress “to end this donation of interest special destroyer “.
“We believe that the forest service understands that this should not be rushed and that no mining should take place in this sacred land,” Grijalva said.
President Joe Biden’s administration did not respond to requests for comment on the draft.
In his previous meeting with Arizona tribal chiefs, Biden said indigenous nations would “have a seat at the table” at the highest levels of government, and he also pledged to “restore tribal lands, fight climate change and protect natural and cultural resources. Resources”.
Meanwhile, Indigenous leaders await trials, while hoping for action from the US government. “We hold on to the faith all the time,” Nosie said at a press conference earlier this month. “But how many times have we done the right thing?”