Gold Mine along Hassayampa River May Imperil Tribal and Riparian Sites

Indigenous cultures as well as biodiversity are threatened by corporate interests the world over. This example is close to home. The full article from the Arizona Republic is below.

by Debra Utacia Krol

Arizona Republic

Wendy Hodgson scaled a steep scree-covered slope in the upper Hassayampa River canyon.

“We’re going up to meet this agave,” she said.

Hodgson perched beside the huge agave, which overlooks the canyon and a rapidly disappearing riparian forest about 20 miles southwest of Prescott.

The bluish-green plant, spanning at least 5 feet in diameter, is a survivor of an agricultural tradition stretching back centuries. It lives on or near archaeological sites and holds part of the story of pre-contact Native peoples.

The rare plant, believed to be the only domesticated agave species found solely in Arizona, could also be a key species in living with the impacts of climate change in the Southwest. But this particular agave is square in the path of a proposed road to enable massive mining equipment into the already devastated wetlands of the intermittent river.

Although the U.S. Forest Service withdrew its draft decision notice on the project Thursday as it re-evaluates the environmental consequences of the site, the proposal is still in play.

The mine and the mining claim that authorizes it is owned by a firm based in Mumbai, India, that became a U.S. corporate citizen to maneuver through the Mining Law of 1872, which allows only U.S. citizens to stake claims.

The domesticated Agave phillipsiana also known as Grand Canyon agave was used by indigenous people for food and tools. A new proposed mining site along the Hassayampa River could possibly threat the rare agave.

The U.S. Forest Service issued a supplemental environmental assessment for two projects, the Riverbend Placer Mine proposal and the plan to reclaim the Lost Nugget mining site, in April.

Both sites are within a mile of each other in the Hassayampa River canyon, a rugged area in the Prescott National Forest. Gold is extracted in riverbed “placer mines,” which have ravaged large swaths of the landscape over the years. Tailings piles sometimes as high as 20 feet, left behind like trash, have obliterated swaths of the Hassayampa’s wetlands.

Joe Trudeau of the Center for Biological Diversity pointed to a huge Fremont cottonwood tree that towers over the rock piles.

“When you destroy the river bottom and the floodplain and replace it with rubble, there are no young trees establishing,” he said. “Effectively, this tree is at the end of the line for the riparian forest.”

Trudeau said the ecosystem the cottonwoods anchored has disappeared because the forest is dead.

The Center issued a letter objecting to the project June 1, the final day of the public comment period. The group pointed out that a 2018 survey of the area failed to take into account the impact mining operations would have on an archeological site that includes Agave phillipisana, a once-plentiful species developed by pre-contact people and grown on terraces with cleverly-devised swales to bring scarce water to their crops.

The center is also concerned that mitigation efforts won’t be enough to restore the riparian zones or surrounding landscape.

Hodgson, the herbarium curator emerita and senior research botanist at the Desert Botanical Garden, said the Phillips agave, as it’s commonly called, is found in or near archaeological sites in what she calls the biocultural landscape.

These members of the Agavaceae, or century-plant family, are also known as Grand Canyon century plants because until the latter 20th century they were only found in the Canyon. They have now been documented in the Verde Valley and along the Hassayampa.

Herbarium curator emerita and senior research botanist at the Desert Botanical Garden, Wendy Hodgson, left, and Joe Trudeau, southwest conservation advocate, are concerned about the new proposed mining site along the Hassayampa River.

They reproduce with underground rhizomes that emerge as new agaves known as pups. The pups can be removed and transplanted. They mature in about seven years, as opposed to wild agaves, which can take much longer to grow large enough to be used by humans. And when human-managed, the domesticated agaves live 20 to 30 years.

These agaves are listed as a globally critically imperiled species, or G1. They’re not eligible to be listed as an endangered species because they’re not wild.

Hodgson and Trudeau said this and other agaves they found in the area are survivors of the once-extensive terrace farms that long ago served as supermarkets, drug and hardware stores. After roasting and eating the flesh, the Native peoples who grew the plants used the fibers for rope, twine, sandals, even a coarse cloth.

But these plants mean more than just subsistence to Indigenous people.

“It’s not just a food plant,” said Hodgson. “It’s not just a plant that you get medicine from. It’s much more than that to these people, both pre-contact and in historic and today to other Indigenous groups.”

Hodgson also noted that agave expert Howard Scott Gentry named the bond between agaves and humans the “Man-Agave Symbiosis.”

“Man helped agaves thrive and man created agaves,” said Hogsdon. “Agaves helped man thrive, not just survive.”

And, Hogsdon said, this and other domesticated agaves could once again be a staple crop in a hotter, dryer Southwest.

“They have such a long history with humans, going back thousands and thousands of years,” said Hogsdon. “For people, agaves are life, plain and simple.”

However, preserving this species and the rest of the biocultural landscape depends on the Forest Service and the owner of the mine, based in India.

Herbarium curator emerita and senior research botanist at the Desert Botanical Garden, Wendy Hodgson, shows off a agave knife dating back to 1200 A.D. Indigenous people used domesticated agaves for food and tools.

Foreign-owned mines in the U.S.

The company that owns the Lost Nugget and Riverbend mines is Pine Creek Mining, based in Prescott. Pine Creek, which the Arizona Corporation Commission classifies as a “foreign” corporation because it’s also incorporated in Oregon, is owned in turn by Pushpak Mining and Exploration, a firm based in Mumbai, India. And Pushpak Mining and Exploration is associated with Pushpak Bullion Private Ltd., a Mumbai bullion dealer.

A nearly 150-year federal law requires that mining claims be filed by a U.S. citizen or somebody who would become a citizen, said Colorado attorney Roger Flynn. Pushpak and many other offshore firms have found a way around that requirement.

“How you get around it, is you form a shell company or corporation in Reno, Phoenix or wherever. Then you become a U.S. corporate citizen and then you’re good,” said Flynn, who’s the founding director of the Western Mining Action Project and an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado School of Law.

Herbarium curator emerita and senior research botanist at the Desert Botanical Garden, Wendy Hodgson, is concerned that a new proposed mining site will imperil a rare agave and cultural site along the Hassayampa River. The domesticated Agave phillipsiana also known as Grand Canyon agave was used by indigenous people for food and tools.
“Rosemont Mine for example is a Canadian company called Hudbay Minerals. They set up a shell company incorporated in Phoenix.” The U.S. office files the mining claims, Flynn said.

Pushpak Mining and Exploration president Amit Sampat has been connected to recent legal woes. In 2017, Pushpak Bullion Private Ltd., of which Sampat is an officer, was accused of colluding with two other people and two officials of Union Bank of India to illegally exchange about $11 million in banknotes that had recently been withdrawn from circulation by India’s central bank in an attempt to reduce rampant counterfeiting and tax evasion.

One Indian newspaper said Sampat was swept up in what India’s Central Bureau of Investigation called a corruption case against the firm and the bank officials over “suspicious deposits of demonetised currency worth Rs 84.5 crore(845,000,000 rupees) into bank accounts of two shell companies.”

In an email, Sampat said the case has been resolved and will be closed by the courts at the end of lockdowns in Mumbai caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The allegation was never about Pushpak Bullions Pvt. Ltd but about its clients who were its debtors. Pushpak was only a recipient of such money through a wire transfer,” he wrote. “The company has cooperated with the investigations and explained their stand.”

He also insisted that Pushpak Bullion and Pushpak Mining and Exploration complied with all U.S. and Indian laws when the firm purchased the mine in 2013.

Hassayampa has cultural, historic ties to tribes

The Hassayampa River canyon is culturally important to several Arizona tribes, including three Yavapai tribes. Several Yavapai bands once roamed some 20,000 square miles of central Arizona, and other tribes, like the Hopi, Mojave and O’odham peoples, have connections as well.

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“Yavapais have been cultivating in that area since time immemorial,” said Albert Cornelius Nelson, culture development coordinator at the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. “There is also an agave that is a hybrid and found nowhere else except here in Arizona that other ancient Natives along with the Yavapai have been growing.”

Hodgson said agave could be one of eight such species known to be cultivated by Native peoples, or another domesticated agave that botanists haven’t yet identified. She and fellow botanist Andrew Salywon recently discovered two new domesticates, naming them after the cultures upon whose ancestral lands they inhabit — the Hualapai and Yavapai peoples.

Forest Service: “It’s not a done deal yet”

Debbie Maneely, spokesperson for Prescott National Forest, said in an email that the Forest Service is still evaluating the proposal, and that no final decision has been made.

“Changes and adjustments to our analysis can and will still occur on this project,” she wrote. “We are currently consulting with the tribal communities on the Agave phillipsiana and working with Pine Creek Mining on proposed locations and steps to preserve and protect the sensitive species.”

The Center for Biological Diversity received word from the Forest Service Thursday that the draft approval has been rescinded pending re-evaluation of the affected environment and the environmental consequences.

Among other issues, the six tribes that the Prescott National Forest partners with on cultural issues may have concerns over the site, said Kevin Hunnell, supervisory environmental coordinator with the Forest Service.

“We need to get the tribal perspective of how they view this site,” said Hunnell. “We’re hoping to set up a site visit with them,” he said, although he added that the COVID-19 pandemic makes such visits or other collaboration difficult with current restrictions in place.

Suchit Patel, Pine Creek Mining’s local representative, said that after receiving the new information about the agave and archaeological finds, the mining company will work with the Forest Service to resolve any issues. “We will try to fulfill all requirements that the Forest Service asked,” said Patel.

Debra Utacia Krol reports and writes about indigenous issues in Arizona and the southwest. Reach her at or at 602-444-8490. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol.