US Congressman in bid to ban Rio Tinto from Apache sacred site

Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva has introduced a bill called the Save Oak Flat From Foreign Mining Act.

The proposal bids to ‘permanently protect’ the area, which is central to the history and religion of the San Carlos Apache tribe.

Mining ban: Congressman Raul Grijalva (pictured) has introduced a bill called the Save Oak Flat From Foreign Mining Act in a bid to block a copper mine at a sacred Apache site in Arizona

Grijalva’s intervention is the latest in a years-long campaign to force Resolution Copper – a group that is majority-owned by Rio – out of the region.

The protests have gained steam since 2020, when Rio blew up two 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal sites in Western Australia while expanding an iron ore mine.

On Monday, an independent investigation the company commissioned in the wake of the Juukan Gorge disaster said it still had more work to do to protect indigenous cultural heritage at all its mines around the world.

FTSE 100- listed Rio was slow to apologise for the destruction of the Juukan Gorge sacred sites and the fallout triggered an Australian parliamentary inquiry, a boardroom clearout and a rethink of local heritage laws.

Following the scandal, then-chairman Simon Thompson promised that the company would ‘never again’ violate sacred sites.

Chief executive Jakob Stausholm has made a point of investigating the company’s toxic culture and practices. But the business has not yet abandoned its plans for the Arizona mine.

Campaign groups and politicians including 75-year-old Grijalva argue Rio would be making the same mistake again by destroying Oak Flat, where the ground itself is sacred for the Apache tribe, flying in the face of its promises after Juukan Gorge.

The techniques the firm is considering using to build the mine could destroy the entire area and turn it into a two-mile-wide crater.

The mine has been contested over recent years after a last-minute piece of legislation in 2014 transferred the land from federal control to Resolution Copper.

Grijalva said: ‘Turning Oak Flat into a political bargaining chip was an assault against tribal sovereignty that never should have happened.

‘Doing it on behalf of a foreign-owned mining conglomerate, with a documented record of destroying indigenous sacred sites and human rights violations, makes it just that much more unconscionable.’

Roger Featherstone, director of local non-profit the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, said that if Rio and Resolution Copper’s minority owner, BHP, were committed to never destroying a sacred site again, then ‘one would think that this inappropriate and unworkable project would be put to rest once and for all’.

A Resolution Copper spokesman said: ‘We are putting significant effort into deepening our dialogue with Native American tribes, including our chairman of the board, chief executive and other senior leaders spending time to meet with and listen to tribal leaders, elders and community members.’