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Proposed copper mine on a land sacred to the indigenous Apache of Arizona, USA

Environmentalists and Native American Apache group strongly oppose a massive Rio Tinto and BHP copper mine project on a land of environmental and cultural importance.


Oak Flat (Chi'Chil Bildagoteel) is a sacred site for Apache people and many other Native Americans. This is a place that has special significance— a place where Apache pray, collect water and medicinal plants for ceremonies, gather acorns and other foods, and honor those that are buried here. The Apache have never lost relationship to Oak Flat, though the U.S. Government, at times in the Apache's history, has  not allowed them to use the land. Yet, the Apache have established an encampment to protect the Holy Ground at Oak Flat with its four crosses, representing the entire surrounding sacred area, including its water, animals, oak trees, and other plants central to the tribal identity. The four crosses are now part of the body of Chi'Chil Bildagoteel [2].

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Proposed copper mine on a land sacred to the indigenous Apache of Arizona, USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Arizona
Location of conflict:Superior, Pinal County
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Mineral Ores and Building Materials Extraction
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Mineral ore exploration
Tailings from mines
Specific commodities:Copper
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The copper mine would be relatively "small" at first, and then it would expand. By Year 41, the crater would grow to about 1.8 miles wide, and it would collapse to depths of 800 to 1,115 feet, taking Oak Flat, an area near Superior, Arizona, that is sacred to the San Carlos Apache, with it. For every ton of ore, the company can extract 31 pounds of copper. Meanwhile, the toxic and dangerous tailings left from extracting 40 billion pounds of copper from 1.4 billion tons of ore would be dumped and supposedly contained — somewhere — in the vicinity of Superior, about an hour east of Phoenix. Gradually, contaminated water would leak into the surrounding environment [3].

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Project area:1000
Level of Investment:1 000 000 000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:3000
Start of the conflict:01/01/2104
Company names or state enterprises:Rio Tinto (Rio Tinto ) from United Kingdom - Owner of the proposed copper mine (55%)
BHP Billiton (BHP) from United Kingdom - Owner of the proposed copper mine (45%)
Relevant government actors:Rio Tinto and mine supporters, including Senator McCain and Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, claimed the project will be an economic boon to the state, digging out nearly two billion tons of ore and generating up to $60 billion in commercial activity over several decades [6]
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Apache-Stronghold, San Carlos, Arizona, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit community organization of grassroots organizers coming together to battle continued colonization, defend holy sites and freedom of religion, and is dedicated to building a better community through neighborhood programs and civic engagement
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Recreational users
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Artistic and creative actions (eg guerilla theatre, murals)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Media based activism/alternative media
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches
Environmental ImpactsPotential: Desertification/Drought, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Mine tailing spills
Health ImpactsPotential: Accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Displacement, Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusUnder construction
Conflict outcome / response:Under negotiation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Development of alternatives:The Center for Biological Diversity is going to put together a team of experts and get the word out to as many people as possible" about the proposed mine — something that the Forest Service is not doing. In fact, the Forest Service's actions seem aimed almost at avoiding or minimizing public input and discussion [3].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The federal process of producing an environmental impact statement on the project can't stop the planned mine directly, anti-mining activists admit. But depending on what the review concludes, it could be used as key evidence for a possible law that would reverse the 2014 land swap that makes the project possible [6].
Sources & Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2015, Section 3003, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Welch, John R. (2017) Earth, Wind, and Fire: Pinal Apaches, Miners, and Genocide in Central Arizona, 1859-1874. Sage Open.
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

[2] Apache-Stronghold, San Carlos, Arizona Defending Holy Sites to

Protect Chi' chil Bildagoteel (Oak Flat)
[click to view]

[1] Vice News 2017: Inside the Fight Against a Mining Development in Oak Flat
[click to view]

[click to view]

Apache Stronghold Indigenous resistance and occupation group. Website includes links to numerous news articles, otehr sources
[click to view]

[3] Phoenix New Time 2019: New Report Provides Terrifying Detail of Mining Destruction Coming for Oak Flat
[click to view]

[6] Phoenix New Time 2016: Environmental Study of Planned Copper Mine at Arizona's Oak Flat Could Halt Project
[click to view]


Other documents

[5]Copper Resolution Project Facts 2109 Report on Environmental, social and economic consequences of the proposed copper mine
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Ksenija Hanacek ICTA-UAB and J. R. Welch (S. Fraser Univ.)
Last update10/10/2020
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