The outgoing administration of US President Donald Trump is set to approve a controversial land swap this month that would give Rio Tinto Ltd and its partners more than 9.7 square kilometers (2,400 acres) to build a copper mine in Arizona, even if the project would destroy religious and cultural sites sacred to Native Americans.
Tribal leaders and other critics say the US government is speeding up the environmental review process before Trump is replaced by President-elect Joe Biden next month, accuse the government and Rio Tinto of denying.
The land swap, described in U.S. government documents, reflects the tension between growing global attention to the rights of indigenous peoples and the need to boost metal production to power electric vehicles and reduce global carbon emissions. . Copper is used to make solar panels, wind turbines, and EV batteries.
The San Carlos Apache tribe said the mine – one of the largest of its kind in the United States – would destroy land believed to be the home of religious deities and sites used for tribal ceremonies, including one to celebrate teenage girls who have come of age.
“This is about religious freedom,” Terry Rambler, president of the San Carlos Apache tribe, told Reuters news agency. “For me and our people, it is a fight not only for today, but for our children and grandchildren.”
Indigenous and environmental groups have raised concerns that surrounding areas could also be at risk, including Apache Leap, a cliff believed to be the site of a massive Apache suicide that was attacked by US forces in the 1870s and jumped to their deaths rather than die. to be caught.
Rio and its partner BHP Group Plc have been seeking access to the underground copper deposit in the Tonto National Forest, which adjoins the San Carlos reserve, for years.
A last-minute addition to a 2014 Pentagon funding bill signed by former President Barack Obama, under which Biden served as vice president, allowed Rio to swap land it owns near the forest for land above the copper reserve, with the caveat that the swap may not occur until an environmental study is released.
Demonstrations have been organized over the years. In November 2019, Wendsler Nosie Sr moved to make a permanent home in the area known as Chi’chil Bildagoteel, or Oak Flat, to protest the mine, the Associated Press news agency reported at the time. .
The US Forest Service has changed its publication estimate several times. Last April, the agency announced it would come in 2021. Three months later, that was changed to December 2020 as the agency said it completed its review faster than expected.
The Forest Service referred requests for comment to a Dec. 1 statement in which it said the December release plan “did not reflect an acceleration.”
The San Carlos Apache tribe has worked with mining companies in the past, most recently selling water to a mine owned by Freeport-McMoRan Inc, although the tribe said it was a decision they made. – even, not a decision of the US government, as with the land swap.
Rio said its subsidiary Resolution Copper, which is developing the mine, has not tried to speed up the licensing process.
“The project is not ‘fast-tracked’,” the company said, adding that if the land swap occurs, the Apache will be able to visit the land for decades to come.
Rio was criticized earlier this year for destroying indigenous sites in Australia. Native Americans say the mining giant is about to make the same mistake in Arizona.
Rio said it consulted with the San Carlos and other Arizona tribes on the preservation of other sites of cultural significance, including Apache Leap.
Biden was overwhelmingly backed in last month’s US presidential election by Native Americans in Arizona, according to exit poll data. Tribal leaders are already pressuring the new president to block construction permits for the mine.
Rambler, the tribal president, said Biden’s transition team was considering his request to meet with the president-elect.