The move, expected before the end of the year and months ahead of schedule, would grant Rio Tinto and BHP more than 2,400 acres to build a copper mine that would destroy religious and cultural sites sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe.
Critics and tribal leaders claim the project’s environmental review process is being fast-tracked in order to push it through before Joe Biden takes office in January.
The US government and Resolution Copper, the joint venture owned by Rio Tinto and BHP, denied those charges, with the US Forest Service insisting the review process was simply concluding faster than expected.
The proposed deal would see Resolution Copper hand the US governm
The land swap, outlined in US government documents, reflects the tension between the increasing global attention on the rights of indigenous peoples and the need to boost metals production to power electric vehicles and reduce global carbon emissions. Copper is used to make solar panels, wind turbines and electric car batteries.
The San Carlos Apache tribe says the mine, if built, would destroy land considered the home of religious deities and sites used for tribal ceremonies, including one to celebrate teenage girls who have come of age.
ent more than 4,000 acres of land elsewhere in exchange for the site in the Tonto National Forest, in the southeast of the state.
“This is about religious freedom,” said Terry Rambler, chair of the tribe. “For me and our people, it’s a fight not only for today, but for our children and grandchildren.”
Rio and partner BHP Group Plc have sought for years to access the underground copper deposit in the Tonto National Forest, which abuts the San Carlos reservation.
A last-minute addition to a 2014 Pentagon funding bill signed by former president Barack Obama allowed Rio to exchange land it owns near the forest for land above the copper reserve, with the caveat that the swap could not occur until an environmental study was published.
The US Forest Service has changed its publication estimate several times. Last April, the agency said it would come in 2021. Three months later, that was changed to December 2020.
The Forest Service referred requests for comment to a 1 December statement where it said the plan for December publication “does not reflect an acceleration”.
But, according to The Guardian, local officials in Arizona said in a meeting with environmental groups that they were getting “pressure from the highest level at the Department of Agriculture”, which oversees the Forest Service.
The San Carlos Apache tribe has worked with mining companies in the past, most recently selling water to a mine owned by Freeport-McMoRan Inc, though the tribe said that was a decision it made itself, not one decided by the US government, as with the land swap.
Rio said that its Resolution Copper subsidiary, which is developing the mine, has not tried to expedite the permit process.
“The project is not being ‘fast-tracked’,” the company said, adding that if the land swap occurs, the Apache will be able to visit the land for the next few decades.
Rio faced criticism earlier this year for destroying indigenous sites in Australia. Native Americans say the mining giant is poised to make the same mistake in Arizona.
Rio said it has consulted with the San Carlos and other Arizona tribes about preserving other culturally significant locations, including Apache Leap, a rock cliff where in the late 19th Century Apaches jumped to their deaths to avoid capture by US troops.
Mr Biden was overwhelmingly supported in last month’s presidential election by Native Americans across Arizona, exit polling data shows. Tribal leaders are already lobbying the incoming president to block construction permits for the mine.
Mr Rambler, the tribal chairman, said Mr Biden’s transition team is considering his request to meet with the president-elect.