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In NDAA, Congress Gives Sacred Native American Land to Foreign Mining Giant with Iran Ties

Sacred Land: Moonrise over the San Carlos Apache Reservation, Arizona. (John Fowler)

Sacred Land: Moonrise over the San Carlos Apache Reservation, Arizona. (John Fowler)

Attached to the 2015 defense spending bill approved by the United States Senate on Friday is a provision giving sacred Native American land to a foreign mining company partnered with the government of Iran.

The Senate on Friday voted 89-11 to approve $585 billion in military spending in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The bill authorizes funding of basic military operations, and includes a one percent raise for US troops.

Some Republicans, led by Ted Cruz of Texas and Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, were incensed at controversial provisions for the conversion of 250,000 acres (1,012 sq. km) of federal land into protected wilderness areas. Coburn called this plan “disastrous.”

There was little or no outrage, however, at another measure attached to the NDAA that Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-AZ), Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and other members of Congress have long championed, despite vehement opposition from scores of Native American tribes.

The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, which according to the Huffington Post twice failed to win approval in the House of Representatives, is vehemently opposed by a coalition of more than 70 Native American tribes.

The measure gives a Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of London-based multinational mining giant Rio Tinto, 2,400 acres (10 sq. km) of the Tonto National Forest for a copper mine that critics claim would have devastating effects on the environment. The land is also sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe, which is concerned that block caving, in which a shaft is drilled more than a mile deep into the earth and the material is excavated without any reinforcement of the extraction area, will leave the land vulnerable to collapse.

“This land is where we go to pray, it’s where we have our sunrise ceremony, our coming of age ceremony,” San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler told Indian Country Today. “It’s where we get our food and where the Creator God put our water resources and there’s going to be a hole there over an area of two miles in circumference.”

“And that’s what we’ll leave our children,” added Rambler, “not just Apache children but all the children of the white people, the Mexicans, the African Americans who live there. That’s what we’ll leave all our children.”

The San Carlos Apache have been joined by more than 70 other indigenous tribes in opposing what critics call the theft of their land. The Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI), which counts 57 member tribes, and the 16-member Great Plains Tribal Chairmen’s Association (GPTCA), have each asked senators not to approve the land transfer.

“If such a land transfer provision seems out of place in a defense bill, that’s because it is,” Quinalt Indian Nation President Fawn Sharp told Indian Country Today. “If the idea of transferring the ownership of federal forest lands to foreign mining companies seems absurd, it’s because that’s true, too.”

Sharp said there are “very good reasons” why so many tribes oppose the provision.

“This action, of transferring land out of federal ownership removes it from the Federal Trust Responsibility, which, along with treaty rights, is a primary way the tribes have left to protect our traditional lands from being destroyed,” she said.

Most of the Republicans who support the land transfer also happen to be hawkish on Iran. But there is apparently little or no concern that Rio Tinto has a business partnership with the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Tehran, a regime subject to harsh US economic sanctions for allegedly supporting terrorism and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. The Iranian government owns a 15 percent stake in Rio Tinto’s Rossing uranium mine in Namibia, southwest Africa.

Rio Tinto and Resolution Copper have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress and contributing to the campaigns of friendly legislators like McCain, donations which have muted or silenced congressional criticism of the company’s well-documented misdeeds.

The company has been widely criticized by environmentalist groups and even governments for its destructive practices. In 2008, the government of Norway divested from Rio Tinto shares over “grossly unethical conduct” related to “severe environmental damage” caused by its Grasberg gold and copper mine, owned jointly with US firm Freeport, in Indonesia.

Grasberg devastation. (Alfindra Primaldhi)

Grasberg devastation. (Alfindra Primaldhi)

In addition to environmental damage, Rio Tinto has been accused of causing widespread human suffering. The company has repeatedly been charged with exploitative labor practices and alleged safety lapses have claimed dozens of lives, including 33 gold miners killed in a preventable collapse at Grasberg in 2013.

Rio Tinto also allegedly planned and paid for the 2011 murder of Indian activist Shehla Masood, who was shot dead outside her Bhopal home after leading opposition to the company’s illegal diamond mining operations.

The Obama administration does not support the Arizona land transfer or the Rio Tinto copper mine there, with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell calling the measure “profoundly disappointing.” But with Rio Tinto promising the mining project will generate $61 billion in economic activity and create 3,700 new jobs, a presidential veto is an unlikely outcome.

Still, members of the San Carlos Apache tribe remain hopeful. Rambler said he hopes Obama will muster “the courage” to veto the bill and vows to “fight it any way that we can” if the president signs the bill.

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