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21 Feb 2021

USA: Indigenous groups oppose Rio Tinto & BHP copper mine due to potential negative impacts on cultural rights & the environment

Australian mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP face opposition from Native American communities and conservation groups over a planned joint venture, Resolution Copper (55% owned by Rio Tinto and 45% owned by BHP), to build a copper mine in Arizona in the United States. In January 2021, a lawsuit was filed by the nonprofit Apache Stronghold aimed at stopping a transfer of Tonto National Forest land, including Oak Flat, to Resolution Copper. The Oak Flat area, known as Chi'chil Bildagoteel, is considered sacred by Apache and other Native people and has been used for centuries for ceremony, sustenance, and habitation. According to former San Carlos Apache tribal chairman and Apache Stronghold leader Wendsler Nosie Sr, "Chi'chil Bildagoteel is central to our traditional religion and identity as Apache people... Giving away our sacred land by the US Government for destruction by a foreign mining company destroys our ability to practice our religion."

Concerns have also been expressed about potential impacts of toxic waste on the nearby wildlands and water contamination.

In February 2021, a federal judge decided not to issue a preliminary injunction, thus leaving the land swap to Resolution Copper unimpeded. In response, members of the San Carlos Apache tribe filed a property lien arguing that the US Government has illegally occupied the land and can, therefore, not give it to Rio Tinto.

In March 2021, the Biden administration halted the process leading to the land swap by unpublishing a report necessary for the land swap in order to give the Forest Service more time to review concerns from Native American tribes. Although an attorney for the US Forest Service told judges during a hearing in March 2023 that the report would be republished in the spring, the court was informed in May 2023 that government officials were still meeting with Native American tribes and that the government had not identified a timeframe for completing its review of the report.

In March 2024, the US Court of Appeals upheld its earlier ruling favouring Rio Tinto's land swap for the Resolution Copper project in Arizona. The court's 6-5 majority decision maintained that the land transfer would not constitute a significant burden on the religious rights of the San Carlos Apache tribe, as it wouldn't directly impede their worship practices. Rio Tinto reportedly intends to engage with tribes as the project progresses.

In April 2024, the Apache Stronghold, representing the San Carlos Apache tribe, asked the entire 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn its March 2024 ruling that granted land to Rio Tinto for a copper mine in Arizona. They argue that the land is sacred and culturally significant, and the mine would destroy sites where Indigenous ceremonies have taken place for generations.

In May 2024, the Court of Appeals denied their request for reconsideration. Apache Stronghold announced they will take the case to the Supreme Court.

Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Rio Tinto and BHP to respond to these concerns. The companies' responses are linked below.

Company Responses