The San Carlos Apache, a small tribe outside Phoenix, Arizona, are locked in a David and Goliath battle with the world’s two largest mining conglomerates and the U.S. government. At stake is a beautiful site in the Tonto National Forest, listed in the National Registry of Historic Places, and sacred to Southwest tribes since time immemorial. Below the ground lies a massive trove of copper ore — possibly the largest in the world.
The U.S. government pledged to protect Oak Flat (Chi’chil Bildagoteel to the Apache) in an 1852 Treaty. Mining was banned when it was incorporated into the National Forest in 1955. Now, the government is acting as real estate broker for Resolution Copper, a joint project of the infamous Rio Tinto mining corporation and BHP Billiton.
Resolution Copper offered land worth an estimated $7 million in trade for Oak Flat valued at $112 billion. After thirteen rejections by Congress, the deal was sneaked into a must-pass bill in 2014. This would allow privatizing a public resource, pending environmental review.
Multinational Rio Tinto leaves a trail of environmental devastation and mistreatment of First Nations people on numerous continents. Last year, they created an international furor when they knowingly destroyed ancient indigenous sites in Australia (see “Destruction of sacred Indigenous sites,” FS, June 2021 ). Despite pledging reform, they plan to wipe out Oak Flat, with its petroglyphs, abundant wildlife and spiritual ties for Native Americans.
The mine would permanently scar the land with a two-mile wide pit as deep as the Eiffel Tower. Its tailings would form the largest toxic waste mound in the world, which will threaten downstream communities. Annually, it could use as much water as the nearby city of Tempe — in the drought-stricken desert. The few thousand jobs and economic benefits to Arizona are not worth these hazards.
Indigenous-led fightback. Apache Stronghold, formed by former San Carlos Tribal Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr., has fought tirelessly for 16 years to protect these lands. They have marched and rallied, testified to the U.S. Forest Service and collected petition signatures, gaining the support of over 500 Native tribes, religious freedom advocates, environmentalists and mining reformers.
The group sued the U.S. government arguing that destruction of the “Sistine Chapel of the Apache” violates constitutional rights to freedom of religion. Supporting briefs were filed by the Sikh, Jewish, Mormon and Krishna faiths.
Currently, the Biden administration paused the land swap, which Trump had put on a fast track. But they also argued against the Apache lawsuit saying that an act of Congress is needed to reverse the deal. The Save Oak Flat Act was reintroduced in April and Apache Stronghold has been in Washington, D.C., lobbying for its passage.
Around the globe, Indigenous people are leading the struggle to conserve rain forests, waterways and sites crucial to their culture and heritage. They are the frontline of a battle that pits development, i.e., profits, against the environment, Native sovereignty and the wellbeing of future generations.
And they are winning! Sustained protest stopped the Keystone XL Pipeline this June and others last year (see “Three pipelines stopped — for now,” FS, August 2020).
Often water and land defenders face off with government entities who do the bidding of Big Business, as is the case with Oak Flat. In the U.S., federal agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs have a horrible track record of selling out the interests of lands and tribes they are charged with protecting.
Wendsler Nosie Sr. states in a recent video on Apache Stronghold, “The people that want to do the right thing [on the Save Oak Flat Act] need to hear the voices of America. If we say nothing they will yet again listen to the corporations, capitalism, and it will destroy the environment we all live in and the oldest religion.”
To raise your voice for Oak Flat, go to Apache Stronghold’s Take Action section on their website.
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