Indigenous Land Grab on the Horizon: Act Now to Save Oak Flat!

By: Madeline McClure

BHP and Rio Tinto, two of the world’s largest resource extraction companies, have earned themselves a solid reputation for obliterating native lands and communities throughout the world. Leaders in the international mining market, the British-Australian companies are globally condemned for their labor, environmental and human rights abuses. Today, they’re hard at work to expand that reputation to Arizona, where their jointly-owned company Resolution Copper advances toward the destruction of ancestral Apache land Oak Flat.

Following the outcry caused by Rio Tinto’s deliberate gutting of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, Rio Tinto and BHP voiced public concessions to work cooperatively with First Nations. In light of this media stunt, we ask what then of La Guajira, Colombia, where a humanitarian disaster has plagued Wayúu communities since BHP’s Cerrejón coal mine has stripped their land of its resources, and what of Oak Flat, where last week a lawsuit was issued by the San Carlos Apache to protect their land from Resolution Copper?

From Australia to Colombia to Arizona, we have seen nothing from BHP and Rio Tinto but dismissal and denial in their placating treatment toward indigenous communities. In response, there have been calls to the United Nations for acknowledgment and support, demands to the corporations themselves for accountability, and movements from allying environmentalists, labor leaders, and activists to apply public pressure to government and business. Meanwhile, the line between government and business continually blurs as promises of economic stability and infrastructure seek to normalize the decimation of native land and culture, while a lobbied government permits and sanctifies it.

Resolution Copper, the largest projected copper mine in the U.S., has been fought against for nearly two decades. The land is Chi’Chil Bildagoteel, or Oak Flat, a stretch of acorn groves, streams, medicinal plants, and petroglyphs, and is ancestral homeland to the Apache. Though the area is now considered Tonto National Forest and used frequently for public camping, hiking, and rock climbing, Oak Flat is Apache. Since forcibly removed in 1872, the San Carlos Apache have resided on what’s been called ‘Hell’s Forty Acres’ roughly 70 miles east of Oak Flat, where they remain prisoners of war despite the long-disregarded original treaty stating that first lands, including Oak Flat, belong to the Apache. “This erasure of Native Americans in contemporary terms perpetuates the genocidal history of America.,” Wendsler Nosie, former chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe, states in a subcommittee testimonial. “What was once gunpowder and disease is now replaced with bureaucratic negligence and a mythologized past that treats we as Native people as something invisible or gone. We are not.”

A view of Oak Flat, Arizona

‘Through any means necessary’ was Oak Flat even considered a possibility, when in 2014 Arizona senators John McCain and Jeff Flake attached a midnight rider to a must-pass National Defense Authorization Act ensuring the exchange of Oak Flat and surrounding area to Resolution Copper. It was only under the last-minute guise of this larger bill was the exchange, which had been proposed and denied 13 times over 10 years, allowed to sneak through. Indeed, it is criminal to imagine the effect that the mine would have on Oak Flat. The proposed method, called block caving, will cut the copper from beneath the land, causing it to collapse in on itself and form what have been deemed ‘glory holes’: bald, hollow scars.  Naelyn Pike, Chiricuahua Apache youth organizer, testified last March, “Chi’Chil Bildagoteel is my home, it is who I am, and it is where I am free to be Apache. Apache people are deeply connected to our traditions and to the land that we have called home since first put here by Usen, the Creator. Apache people come to Oak Flat to participate in Holy Ground and the Sunrise Dance ceremonies, to pray, to gather medicines and ceremonial items, and to seek and obtain peace and personal cleansing.”

The threat of losing Oak Flat to Resolution Copper has come to a head in the last week as a crucial environmental impact statement from the U.S. Forest Service has passed, kick-starting a 55-day lien after which Rio Tinto and BHP will be permitted the land through the exchange. The statement was pushed through the day after the San Carlos Apache filed a lawsuit against the land giveaway, citing violation of the Religious Freedom Act. After nearly twenty years of public testimonies, marches on Washington, ten million signatures in petition, land occupation, and hundreds of reports and public actions, it has come down to this 55-day period. There is a lot of hope, thanks to the strength and organization of the Apache people, that Resolution Copper can still be prevented. We must use these days to take action in solidarity with the Apache to save Oak Flat.

“In plain sight, this company gives empty promises to continue their corporate greed in their pockets, indigenous people around the world fight for their religious way of life,” writes Naelyn Pike, “No more broken promises.” We have seen promises broken elsewhere, leaving environmental ruin and widespread death and destitution in their wake. BHP and Rio Tinto have failed to offer any reconciliation for the damage they’ve caused in communities across the world, and nowhere do we see this as prominently and with such impunity as in the Global South.

La Guajira, Colombia
A consortium of European-based companies including BHP, Glencore and Anglo-American are complicit in the humanitarian crisis caused by El Cerrejón mine. One of the world’s largest open-pit coal mines, it carves into the Guajira Peninsula, the northeastern point of Colombia which juts into the Caribbean Sea. It is the territory of Colombia’s largest indigenous group, the Wayúu, though much of it now is a bald scar that has run the Rio Rancheria dry. Since the mining began in 1985, dozens of communities have been displaced and over 14,000 people have lost their lives due to malnutrition. El Cerrejón, meanwhile, has thrived, redirecting the Rio Rancheria in order to mine the 500 million tons of coal beneath the river. Reported by the United Nations, the Wayúu are restricted to less than one-fifth gallon of water per person per day while the Cerrejón mine sucks 713,000 gallons daily from the now-contaminated river and its aquifer.

Though coal mines have been steadily decommissioned in Europe since the 1960s, native lands throughout the world continue to be stripped dry, their energy sent abroad. “We want you to stay warm, but not at the cost of the destruction of our community and our culture,” says Jairo Epiayu, leader of the Wayúu community of Tamaquito, in a letter to the mining corporation. “The company that operates this mine known as Cerrejón has come to our lands violating our rights, discriminating against us, polluting, and putting an end to our livelihood, that is, our freedom, our right to fish, to hunt, to work, putting an end to the crops from which we would earn some cash to get by.”

Tamaquito is one of many Wayúu communities on the peninsula which has been relocated from their thriving original land along the Rio Rancheria to arid, concrete tracts provided by the mining company and government. The setting has been given the same name with ‘2’ tacked on, as if these waterless compounds are an upgrade—or even comparable–to their previous homeland. Touted as a step toward economic prosperity, Tamaquito 2 is a barren stretch of poorly-built cylindrical block structures, where the wind rips dust through the flat steppe and the sun beats relentlessly down.

Of the 35 communities displaced by the mine, Tamaquito is the only town that has conceded to relocation, though they cite pressure from the company, isolation from surrounding communities who were forcibly displaced, and the contamination of the original Rio Rancheria as driving forces behind their decision to move. Now BHP and other investors in the Cerrejón mine hold up Tamaquito 2 as an exemplary community in their relations with indigenous populations. They do not mention in these media press releases that Tamaquito community members have fought for years to acquire promised aid from the company to no avail, as they are dismissed both in Colombia and abroad. “As time passed, the relationship with the mining companies went from bad to worse, and we started to see the bad implications of the [mining] proposal,” states Epiayu. “The companies continuously violate our rights, they do not respect our traditional laws that must be applied to compensate the irreversible damage they have caused to the communities and to nature.”

A portion of El Cerrejon mine on the La Guajira peninsula

Tragically, malnutrition due to water contamination, in combination with drought, have adversely affected children 5 and under, causing dozens of early childhood fatalities annually in the Guajira region. To this day, El Cerrejón continues to expand its reach, and Wayúu are pushed further into uninhabitable regions and urban areas. Largely, their stories drown in a sea of international silence.

The Price of Water
In September, 2020, the United States took a major step in advancing the climate crisis when it opened California’s water sources for trading on Wall Street. With nearly two-thirds of the world facing water shortages in the next four years, we know what to expect from the select corporations who would control a reality of commodified water. The environmental misery that has befallen La Guajira has already told that story.

The fight to protect Oak Flat is one which seeks to prevent a furthering water crisis, as well. Underground streams in the proposed mining area flow to the water table which surrounding communities, already suffering from drought, depend upon. “The mine will also permanently damage the region’s already severely depleted water supply and the wake of this destruction will cause a multi-billion dollar superfund site that will haunt generations yet to come,” testifies Wendsler Nosie. “Meanwhile, the mercenaries and perpetrators of this irreversible damage, who have no direct or ancestral ties to the area, will simply up and leave after they have extracted the minerals of value they seek to profit from while leaving us to deal with their created catastrophe.”

In places like La Guajira, it is hard to estimate the amount of ecological damage the coal mine has caused. Incomplete and manipulated surveys on environmental impact obscure the true cost of these ventures and the societal repercussions that they cause. Oak Flat has already experienced a flawed environmental impact statement in 2018, based on best-case scenario estimates. What we know of Resolution Copper’s true impact is thanks to nongovernmental surveys and analysis. The Arizona Mining Reform Coalition announced in a press statement last week, “With Arizona entering its 21st year of a long-term drought and the potential to pollute and deplete the town of Superiors water supply, how can anyone let this happen, considering it would be a failed mining experiment? The east valley municipalities of Queen Creek, Gilbert, and San Tan area beware, this project would wipe out your water supply. The project itself will consume 40,000 acre feet of water a year which is the same as Tempe, Arizona ,which has a population of 180,000 people.” Projected mining projects in other parts of the world have been halted due to similar estimates, leaving us wondering what backdoor deals have been made as the second environmental impact statement passed through last week. “I am not anti-mining by any stretch,” Hydrologist and geophysicist Dr. Steven Emerman stated after an independent survey, “But this is the worst mining project I have ever encountered.”

Labor Speaks
Adding to the history of extractive industry workers organizing for the health of the land and for the rights of the people are miners at El Cerrejón and the Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition of Superior, Arizona. Labor disputes have been prominent in El Cerrejón and the coal workers union Sintracarbon, culminating in 2020 when the largest coal strike in the history of Colombia–more than 10,000 workers–occurred in response to El Cerrejón’s violations of Colombian labor laws.

In line with the series of betrayed agreements with indigenous groups, El Cerrejón broke previous union negotiations by laying off 1,250 workers and demanding longer shift schedules which workers coined ‘the death shift.’ Trust between the coal workers union and El Cerrejón is undoubtedly broken as miners speak out on their treatment. A public statement from the coal miners announces, “Our bosses at Carbones del Cerrejón continue to show that each one of us is merely a number, a statistic; that we only matter to them while we can get into a lorry, handle a shovel or repair a machine; that as soon as we get ill, we are a burden, a piece of rubbish. We could not hope for anything else from a multinational, which through its Manager of Human Resources published an article in the press a declaration in which he alleged that the ill workers at Cerrejón were faking their sickness, coached by their union.”

Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Coalition of Superior, Arizona have also given public testimony in hopes of preventing what it asserts to be the “irreparable environmental and cultural impacts of the proposed Resolution Copper mining operation.” The extractive workforce perspective is imperative in dismantling the misconceptions sold by these companies. The Coalition rightly asserts that the promised jobs, so revered by governments in the permitting process, are often handed out to non-local and foreign technicians, and further points out the developing use of robotics performed remotely will impact promised employment. “‘Forgiveness before permission’ appears to be the train of thought for this Project and many others. This is basically giving away American taxpayer public resources to a foreign-owned operative for free, which in essence is fleecing all US citizens.”

Arizona Mining Reform Coalition compares similarities between atrocities at Juukan Gorge, Australia and the projected damage at Oak Flat, Arizona

Working in solidarity with mined communities often carries the risk of physical harm. The concerted efforts between companies and government in Colombia, for instance, have made the creation of organized, united fronts life-threatening. La Guajira communities Caracolí and Espinal faced violent, forced displacement following a lawsuit against El Cerrejón for violating the 1991 Constitution, which promises ‘fundamental rights to health and physical integrity.’ The first lawsuit to hold the company accountable for its human rights abuses experienced a violent backlash. Several community members were injured in assassination attempts, with law school students assisting in the lawsuit forced to flee due to persistent death threats.

Time to Shut It Down
Environmental racism is at the heart of BHP and Rio Tinto projects such as El Cerrejón and Resolution Copper. These endeavors target native lands, who in turn are abandoned by governments and the international laws purported to protect them. It is left to people’s movements, led by the affected native communities, to fight back and preserve not only the fate of future generations but that of our climate. In a time when desperation for water resources are turned into coveted stock on Wall Street, why are we continuing to expand the largest extractive projects that our lands have suffered, knowing that mining is one of the most water-intensive industries on earth? These corporations violate our labor laws, lay ruin to our local ecologies, and perpetuate the genocide of indigenous nations. Enough is enough: together we must give a resounding ‘No!’ to this continued violence.

Act now by visiting Apache Stronghold ‘Take Action’ site

Tell Rio Tinto they are not wanted at Oak Flat

Write to your Congress leaders to Save Oak Flat