United States 04 Feb 2015 00:00
In Arizona Apache activists lead a 45 mile march culminating in an open-ended occupation of sacred land recently turned over to Resolution Copper for mining. In December Sen. John McCain attached a rider to the Defense Bill giving the 2,400 acre Oak Flat to the Rio Tinto subsidiary. This story follows several activists during the actions, beginning on the San Carlos Indian Reservation and through the occupation at Oak Flat.
Originally Oak Flat was part of the initial San Carlos Indian Reservation when it was established in 1872. As with much of the land surrounding the Reservation as it exists today, the land was taken away from the Apache Tribes parcel by parcel in the late-19th and early-20th centuries and given to an expanding mining industry. Oak Flat, however, unlike other parcels, was made exempt from mining in 1955 by an executive order issued by Pres. Dwight Eisenhower and was preserved as part of the Tonto National Forest. December's legislation effectively overturns that executive order.
The Apache now living on the San Carlos Reservation are not traditionally from that specific area. Apache tribes lived in the surrounding mountains, including the area of Oak Flat, before being defeated by the US Calvary and driven onto the Reservation in the late 1800s. The Reservation was originally a prison camp. Oak Flat is one of several sites that was once Apache land but has long since been out of the tribes' control. For countless generations the site has been considered a holy place in their native religion. In addition to it being an ancestral home of the Apache, Oak Flat is also a burial site; a place to gather acorns as part of a traditional fall ritual; and a location for the Sunrise Ceremony, the coming-of-age ceremony for young Apache women, among other traditions.
What makes the Oak Flat mining project especially controversial is the method of mining that will be used, called "block cave mining." At Oak Flat, the copper ore lies more than a mile beneath the surface. In contrast to conventional mining practices, "block cave" essentially digs deep and removes all of the matter from a site - copper ore, earth, waste, etc. - and the top eventually caves in on top of the cavern. This is a far cheaper but far more destructive process. Once the mine is in full operation no one will be permitted to access Oak Flat - not campers, climbers, and hikers; not the Apache who consider it a sacred place. And according to Resolution Copper itself, as the entire surface collapses Oak Flat will eventually be destroyed.
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