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Native Americans try to block US decision to cede land to Rio Tinto | Indigenous rights news

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A Native American group claims the United States does not have land the mining giant is looking for for lucrative copper deposits.

Members of the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona have filed a land claim in an attempt to regain control of the land the United States government is about to give to Rio Tinto Ltd for its Resolution Copper mine.

The Rio Tinto case is another legal fight with indigenous tribes, following the mining giant’s destruction of an indigenous cave site in Australia last year.

At the proposed Arizona site, clashes are increasingly frequent between indigenous groups and mining companies eager to produce more copper for electric vehicles and other green technologies.

The latest maneuver by tribesmen opposed to the project is asking a court to find that the U.S. government has illegally occupied the land for over 160 years and has no right to give it to anyone.

“The United States of America does not own this land,” Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit organization of mine opponents, said in a court case.

The mine could supply a quarter of America’s demand for copper if developed, but would ultimately destroy the land, known as Oak Flat, or Chi’chil Bildagotee, considered by Native Americans to be the homeland of religious deities.

Rio’s subsidiary Resolution Copper said it would follow up on the case and remain “committed to an ongoing engagement with Native American tribes to continue to shape the project and implement initiatives that recognize and protect cultural heritage.”

Rio and its development partner BHP Group Ltd have for years sought access to the underground copper deposit, located approximately 113 kilometers east of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest.

The US Forest Service, which manages the land, declined to comment.

Field exchange

Earlier this month, a major UK local government retreat group urged Rio and BHP to clarify how they intend to protect the environment in and around the proposed project.

The Local Authority Pension Fund Forum, a shareholder in both companies, said on Jan. 8 it had written to them asking how the project would affect local communities.

The deposit is located under land that belonged to the tribe before the existence of the United States. An 1852 treaty between American officials and the tribe that is still in force set aside the land for the use of the Apaches.

The copper mine proposed by Rio Tinto is located on a site considered by Native Americans to be the home of religious deities and contains ancient rock art such as this petroglyph [File: Deanna Dent/Reuters]

In 2014, the US Congress and then-President Barack Obama approved a plan to allow Rio to swap land it already owns for land above copper, with the caveat that the exchange could not take place before the publication of an environmental study. President Donald Trump’s outgoing administration plans to release the study on Friday, paving the way for the exchange within 60 days.

Members of the tribe also filed a lawsuit to block publication of the study.

The claim, officially known as the lien, is essentially the next line of defense if this lawsuit fails. Last year, the United States Supreme Court upheld the 19th-century land treaties between the Washington and Oklahoma tribes, a precedent that could strengthen the Apache claim for privilege.

Rio has promised to seek the consent of the tribe for the mine. Even if Rio takes control of the land, the company still needs federal permits, a process both sides recognize could take years.

The company has also been at the center of another controversy over Indigenous lands in Australia.

Last year, Rio sparked public and investor uproar after destroying rock shelters at 46,000-year-old Juukan Gorge in Western Australia for a mine extension. The site is considered sacred by the indigenous tribes.

Opposition to the company’s decision led to the resignation of its managing director and two deputies.


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