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By Leon Thompson

December 27, 2014 (Washington D.C.)--The U.S. Senate passed a measure authorizing the nation’s defense programs and along with it, managed to give lands sacred to Native Americans to a foreign company that owns a uranium mine with Iran.

The Arizona land swap was added during secret negotiations between the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The deal was never publicly revealed until the House started work on passing the entire defense bill last week.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 is legislation that Congress passes every year, but like they did in attaching extraneous riders to the must-pass government funding bill, lawmakers used the $585 billion defense bill as a vehicle to give protected public land away to a controversial foreign mining company to make billions of dollars selling copper to China.  The deal gives a subsidiary of the Australian-English mining firm Rio Tinto 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest so it can mine a massive copper deposit in exchange for several diverse parcels.

The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, had twice failed to win support in the House of Representatives, blocked by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. 

In fact the copper mine project is widely opposed. A broad coalition of southwestern tribal nations and Indian country in general, as well as the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, say the mine will devastate the water that feeds the area’s aquifers. They have thwarted Rio Tinto’s efforts to acquire the land over the past decade. Both the National Congress of American Indians and the United South and Eastern Tribes have passed resolutions opposing the land swap and mining proposal.

According to the Huffington Post, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been the lead supporter over the years of Rio Tinto’s efforts to acquire the land. McCain was instrumental in attaching the land swap bill into the National Defense Authorization Act. (DAA)  at the last minute.


The Iran connection comes from a uranium mine in Namibia, in which Tehran has owned a 15 percent stake since the days of the shah.  "Rio Tinto is enormous. Its history of attacks on workers' rights, and environmental destruction has had a particularly damaging impact across the world," said Richard Solly, coordinator of London Mining Network, an alliance of human rights, development, environmental and solidarity groups, the Guardian of London reported.

During the first years of operation, the Namibia uranium mine operated with a migrant labor system which the International Commission of Jurists declared illegal and said was similar to slavery. Black workers lived on the mine premises and were exposed to dust and radiation 24 hours a day and the mine became the focus for protests by anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear groups.

Shares in the mine are owned 69% by UK-based Rio Tinto, and 15% by the government of Iran. The Namibian government has denied supplying Iran with Namibian uranium which could be used for nuclear weapons.

Native Americans, particularly the Apache tribe in the area, say digging a massive mine (said to be a copper ore deposit that is a cubic mile) under their ancestral lands will physically destroy sacred ceremonial and burial grounds.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe has worked for the past decade to shine light on the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange that would transfer Oak Flat and nearby lands in the Tonto National Forest – lands held sacred by the Apaches and many other First Nation Americans – to a foreign-owned mining corporation for certain destruction.

Sadly, this Land Exchange has been airdropped into the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) at the eleventh hour, as Congress prepares to bring the 113th Session to close.  

Hundreds of tribal governments, tribal organizations, and others have joined San Carlos Apaches in opposition to the Land Exchange because it would transfer public federal lands that encompass a known Native place of worship to a private mining company.

In the face of this opposition, certain Congressional members of Arizona’s delegation forced a closed-door deal to insert the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. The Land Exchange was included in Section 3003 on page 1,103 of a 1,700-page bill that was unveiled after 11:00 p.m. the evening before it came up for consideration. This exemplifies everything wrong with Congress.

Section 3003 would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to convey over 2,400 acres of the Forest, including Oak Flat, to a mining company called Resolution Copper, which is owned by the foreign mining giants Rio Tinto PLC (United Kingdom) and BHP Billiton Ltd (Australia).

The area to be mined is called simply The Forest, established in 1905 from Apache ancestral homelands.  The forest is named after the Tonto Apaches who were forced from the Oak Flat area in the 1870s and imprisoned at Camp Verde Reservation.

The Reservation is located 15 miles from Oak Flat. During the winter of 1875, the Apache prisoners of war were forced marched to San Carlos Reservation by the military.  Over one hundred Tonto Apaches died during that winter March. It seems that history is repeating itself.

Chairman of the San Carlos Band of Apache,  Terry Rambler wrote, “Oak Flat is a place of irreplaceable beauty. President Eisenhower specifically withdrew the Area from mining through a Public Lands Order. President Nixon reaffirmed withdrawal. However, Rio Tinto/Resolution Copper seeks to develop and operate the largest copper mine in North America in the Oak Flat area.”

Resolution Copper plans to use the highly destructive block cave mining method to remove one cubic mile of ore – the equivalent of 1,400 stadiums – 7,000 feet beneath the surface of the earth without replacing any of the earth removed because it is the cheapest form of mining. Resolution Copper itself admits that the surface will collapse, creating a crater visible from outer space and destroying forever our place of worship.

The Transfer and resulting mine will forever alter the region’s water quality and water supply. Copper is one of the most water-intensive forms of mining in existence. Add block cave mining into the factor, and the need for water further intensifies. The U.S. established the Tonto National Forest in 1904 to protect the region’s watershed. This protection will also turn to dust with the land exchange.

The beneficiaries of the Land Transfer – Resolution Copper Mining and its parent corporation Rio Tinto – will reap billions in American taxpayer resources. They are earmarked to reap these benefits without any guarantee that the copper remains in the U.S. 

Resolution Copper Project Director, Andrew Taplin, admitted in a recent Arizona Central article that the copper ore mined from Oak Flat will likely be shipped out of the country to be smelted. Rio Tinto’s top shareholder – Chinalco, a corporation owned by the government of China “cannot wait for this deal to pass.”

The Institute for Science and International Security issued a report on October 24, 2013, stating that the Government of Iran may be in proximate possession of weapons-grade uranium.

The proponents the ACT claim that the bill was amended to address the Tribe’s concerns with protections sacred places and environmental concerns. These claims are hollow. Despite changes to require consultation with affected tribes and compliance with the National Environmental Protection Act, Section 3003 still mandates the transfer of Oak Flat into the private ownership of Resolution Copper regardless of the results of the consultation or information and recommendations resulting from the National Environmental Protection Agency process. A mandatory conveyance defeats the purpose of tribal consultations and the NEPA process that are designed to help provide information before decisions about transferring the land are made. In Section 3003, the outcome is pre-determined, rendering tribal views and public comments meaningless.

Furthermore, Section 3003 would not require Resolution Copper to mitigate impacts on the Oak Flat area after conveyance and contains no repercussions or penalties on Resolution Copper for environmental harm or the destruction to significant and sacred areas.

Tribal Chairman Rambler went on to say, “Oak Flat is one of our religious places where our Gaan – spiritual deities and Holy People – reside. Apache people have lived, prayed, and died in the Oak Flat Area since time immemorial. We are saddened that Congress, through an 11th hour rider, has ignored the will of the people. We are concerned for our children who may never see or practice their religion in their rightful place of worship. We are worried for the children of southeast Arizona who may have to find new places to live to drink clean water. And we are gravely concerned for the American voter whose voice continues to be ignored. However, the Apache people will not remain silent. We are committed to shining light on the Land Exchange and the proposed mine until we have no breath.”






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Re: Desecration of Apache Land

Hello, Leon Thompson: I agree that the passing of a law to allow the digging of an enormous mine that would destroy burial sites sacred to the Apache and other Native Americans is yet another assault on Indian country's sovereignty. True, Rio Tinto promises it will work closely with tribes to make sure that their voices are heard, and that it will work with the U.S. Forest Service to protect the environment; and true, Senators John McCain (R-Ariz) and Jeff Flake envision the project as generating close to 4,000 jobs over time. The issue, however, remains that the voices of those affected most by this project are the ones that appear to be the least listened-to. President Obama has not yet signed it into law, so we can only hope that he will delay doing so to allow Native America and others who do not support this law to voice their concerns. We can only further hope that he will use his presidential powers to the fullest extent to support tribal nations whose voices and concerns have been given only cursory attention for far too long. KB Schaller, Author 100+ Native American Women Who Changed the World Winner, 2014 International Book Award, Women' Issues Category

Thanks for Sharing This Latest Atrocity

Thank you, Mr. Thompson. This latest atrocity against our own aboriginal Americans and us later immigrants must be stopped! I hope that the Native American tribal councils will sue to prevent this action! I also hope that many other organizations will file amicus curiae to support the tribes's suit!!! This complex deal is against the national interest of the United States!!!! How is allowing Iran and China access to uranium and copper good for the United States??? Senator John McCain must have lost his mind, if there is any left!!!!