Reese: The U Needs to Break Up with Rio Tinto


Tom Denton

Outside of the Natural History Museum of Utah on Jan. 22, 2021. (Tom Denton | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Isaac Reese, Opinion Writer


In the weeks just prior to President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Trump administration moved quickly to sell sacred Apache land to Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto. The move was met with protests lead by Apache tribe members in both Arizona and Washington, D.C. Rio Tinto is notorious for its desecration of Australian Aboriginal lands and for being the cause of a civil war in Papua New Guinea. The massive corporation has taken its profits from ventures such as these and invested them into new communities — including our own. This blood money has been used in Utah to fund Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium and the Rio Tinto Center, which houses the Natural History Museum of Utah near Research Park.

This past September, the University of Utah released an Indigenous Land Acknowledgement to recognize and express appreciation to the Indigenous people on whose lands our campus rests. It is disappointing that a university claiming to want to build a better relationship with Indigenous communities would accept money gained from exploiting native peoples and their lands. There is no excuse for that kind of hypocrisy. The U should end its relationship with Rio Tinto and remove the company’s name from campus buildings.

Environmental Damage and Civil War in Bougainville

Through a subsidiary, Rio Tinto used to operate the Panguna copper and gold mines in Bougainville, an autonomous region within Papua New Guinea. Rio Tinto’s mining contaminated the area’s water sources and threatened locals’ health. Theonila Roka Matbob, a member of the Bougainville parliament said, “Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution.” That kind of neglect is inexcusable in and of itself, but it gets worse. Rio Tinto’s actions led to a civil war that consumed the island from 1988 to 1998. Laborers began protesting the company for underpaying Black workers and providing worse living conditions for them than for other employees. The Papua New Guinea military attacked the striking workers, which prompted Bougainville to seek independence from the island nation. By some estimates, 20,000 people were killed over the course of the conflict.

Looking Ahead to Oak Flat

Rio Tinto has also done plenty of damage closer to home. In the Trump administration’s final hour, it sold 2,400 acres of Apache Land in Arizona, known as Oak Flat, to Rio Tinto on January 15. The San Carlos Apache tribe has been using the site for centuries and considers it sacred land. Rio Tinto wants it for its 1.9 billion tons of untouched copper. After the US Forest Service released a draft of the environmental impact report for the sale, Rio Tinto stated, “We respect the history, beliefs, and culture of our neighbors and local communities. We continue to create relationships with Native American Tribes and work to identify mutually beneficial partnership opportunities.” The company did show that it has met federal standards for protecting the area’s surface land and groundwater. But the US Forest Service report stated that mining projects there had “high potential… to directly, adversely and permanently affect… places and experiences of high spiritual and other value to tribal members,” as well as destroy the homes of local fauna.

The report also showed potential for water contamination which could poison local communities. In an interview for Reuters, Apache tribe member Vanessa Nosie expressed her belief that that is a very real threat.

Rio Tinto’s mining causes much more harm than good for the communities in which they operate. They have left areas like Bougainville corporate legacy of environmental, political and cultural devastation — and now, thanks to a rushed transaction by the Trump administration just days before he left office, Oak Flat has the potential to join Bougainville’s ranks. However, a judge has postponed the land transfer for 55 days as a result of a lawsuit filed by the San Carlos Apache Tribe. Rep. Raúl Grijalva and Sen. Bernie Sanders will also introduce federal legislation to void the land exchange as well.

But even with the help of these legal efforts, Oak Flat’s future is far from secure. There still is a long battle left to stop Rio Tinto from one day exploiting the region.

The destruction Rio Tinto inflicted on Bougainville just over 20 years ago is evidence enough that the company does not adhere to any ethical or moral guidelines. They will cause similar pain to the Indigenous people of Oak Flat — and as such, the U’s association with the mining company is in direct conflict with its commitment to Indigenous communities. In order to uphold their “commitment to serving and partnering with Native Nations,” the U must end its relationship with Rio Tinto and remove the corporation’s filthy name from our campus. No amount of educational philanthropy can make up for the mining company’s moral bankruptcy.


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