Mining giant Rio Tinto hit by legal battle over sacred Apache site in Arizona’s Oak Flat, the center of the tribe’s religion, where traditional ceremonies still take place
The serene Oak Flat highland is located in the heart of Arizona. With its beautiful mountain peaks and forest, it is a popular place for campers, hikers and mountain climbers. Above all, it is the center of the religion of the San Carlos Apache tribe, a place of devotion where their gods reside and where they still perform traditional ceremonies.
But it is now at the center of a dispute between the tribe and FTSE 100 giant Rio Tinto. It will also be an acid test for the mining group’s claims that they are committed to respecting sacred sites.
Wendsler Nosie Sr of the Apache Stronghold — a coalition of Apaches and non-Apache supporters bringing the case to court — describes it as the “most sacred place where we connect with our creator, our faith, our families, and our country.”
Clash: Wendsler Nosie of the Apache Stronghold fights Rio Tinto and BHP
He says, “It is a place of healing that has been sacred to us long before the Europeans on this continent.”
Members of the tribe, famously led by Geronimo in the 19th century, called it their equivalent of Mount Sinai, describing petroglyphs and carvings as the footprints and spirit of their ancestors.
In 1955, President Eisenhower signed an order banning Oak Flat, which is located in the Tonto National Forest 60 miles from the capital Phoenix, from mining.
But since 2004, there has been a bitter battle between Rio Tinto and fellow mining group BHP — through their Resolution Copper joint venture — to access the metal that lies beneath Oak Flat, unlike the locals.
The project will now be at the center of a Supreme Court battle that threatens to tarnish Rio’s already damaged reputation.
The company has been the target of global outrage after it blew up two 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal caves in Western Australia two years ago to expand a lucrative iron ore mine, despite knowledge of their archaeological and religious value.
The destruction resulted in an Australian parliamentary inquiry, a re-evaluation of heritage laws and a boardroom clean-up – which included then-CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques.
Tribute: The Apache tribe was led by Geronimo . in the 19th century
Chairman Simon Thompson promised the company would “never again” destroy sacred sites, and new boss Jakob Stausholm has made it a point to investigate the toxic culture and practices.
But the fate of the Apache tribe seems to directly contradict these goals. Resolution Copper says it says the type of mining it plans to use could result in a nearly two-mile-wide crater in Oak Flat, destroying the land. Roger Featherstone, director of campaign group the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, says: “It cannot be forgotten that Rio Tinto and BHP both promised the world that they would never allow the destruction of an indigenous sacred site again after Rio Tinto sacred rock shelters in Australia had blown up for a mine expansion – Resolution Copper’s mining plan would do just that.”
Locals also insist that the sheer amount of waste being created and the water needed for the project could jeopardize state resources. Featherstone added, “With Arizona in the midst of its worst drought we’ve experienced in 1,200 years, there won’t be enough water for this project unless farmers, communities, our public lands and other industries give up water to allow it.” ‘
Resolution Copper’s bid to get hold of the land involved a complicated legal process — subject to a land swap with the National Forestry Service. This was waived in January 2021 under the Trump administration.
The Apache tribe immediately filed an order to halt the project altogether on the grounds that it would harm their religious freedom. In June, a federal court overturned this ban in a 2-1 ruling — dissenting judge Marsha Berzon calling the conclusion “absurd.”
However, the controversial land swap has stalled and is still the subject of a federal investigation. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court appeal, expected to be filed next month, will again show that the Apaches’ religious freedom will be crushed by the mining plans. The case is between the Apache Stronghold and the US government, but Rio could be called as a witness. Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Apaches legal group, Becket Law, said: “Legal, principled and common sense, this is one of the most straightforward cases I’ve ever worked on.
“Legally it’s a matter of life and death for the Apaches themselves, it’s about whether their tribe as a people could survive for centuries to come.”
A Rio spokesperson said the company has already scaled back its plans and excluded some sensitive areas. Rio added: “We respect the sovereignty of tribal communities. Resolution Copper is committed to preserving Native American cultural heritage, developing partnerships and bringing lasting benefits to our communities.”