The Rosemont/Copper World mining project: a short-term game for a long-term loss?

The Sonoran Desert is a semi-arid area stretching from southern Arizona and California to northern Mexico. The landscape is made up of Sky Islands, mountain ranges separated from each other and surrounded by a radically different environment [1]. As the mountain rises, the ecosystem changes, with semi-desert grasslands giving way to forests. Thanks to the altitude (between 915 and 3,300 meters), oaks grow, endemic species [2] develop and animals migrate. The Santa Rita Mountains, which rise south of Tucson (Arizona) and are part of the Sky Islands, are home to over 250 species of birds and rare amphibians. It is on this exceptional habitat that the Canadian company Hudbay plans to build an open-pit copper mine.

In the city of Tucson, the Rosemont project has been the subject of conflict since 1996. Initially, the Rosemont mine was to be built on the eastern slope of the Santa Rita Mountains, the most suitable location for copper extraction. The Court of Justice refused to grant a building permit to the company, which planned to dump its tailings on public land in the Coronado National Forest. From 2019 to 2023, Hudbay set up a new mining project called Copper World. Now, the Canadian company is preparing to build a mine on the properties it owns, on the other side of the mountain on the western slope. Hudbay no longer has any obstacles, since the mining project is located on private land rather than on American public land [3].

Open-pit copper mine in the Tucson area

The Rosemont/Copper World project is the source of opposition between residents who have a different relationship with their environment. During my 6-week study at the University of Arizona, I conducted 12 interviews with a variety of stakeholders: environmentalists, natives American, landscape architects, documentary filmmakers, residents living near the mine, mine professionals and former employees of the Rosemont project. My aim was to capture the opposing perceptions and representations of the landscape within these social groups.

Residents’ relationship with the landscape of the Santa Rita Mountains is complex. Environmentalists are imbued with the idea of wilderness. They identify the landscape with a wild space, where the land and its community of life are unhindered by human. From their point of view, it is important to preserve the natural conditions of the place and to consider man as a mere visitor. The indigenous people, for their part, have a sacred bond with the mountain. The Tohono O’odham (“people of the desert”) keep the graves of their ancestors on these lands. To preserve the traces of their past, verbal or written memory is not enough: they need to experience the landscape. The relationship of the Tohono O’odham to the Santa Rita Mountains is not limited to a symbolic link, but is composed of the blending of bodies, matter and space [4]. Finally, mining professionals have a complex temporal and memorial relationship with the landscape. On the one hand, they observe the landscape through the prism of geological history, since the Santa Rita Mountains are first a mineral resource. On the other hand, open-pit mining is part of Arizona’s history, and they see these anthropized landscapes as part of the region’s identity.

View of the Santa Rita Mountains from Coronado National Forest

The landscape of the Santa Rita Mountains appeals to perception, thought, imagination, memory, emotion and volition, but never in a univocal way. Each social group seems to have its own apprehension of the landscape. Everyone seems to be attached to the Santa Rita Mountains and we may wonder if the Rosemont/Copper World project is not “a short-term game for a long term lost”, in the words of one local resident. One thing is certain: no two people value the landscape in the same way, and everyone seems to have their own rules of the game.

Article written by Emma WOLTON

PhD student in the PhD Joint Program CNRS-University of Arizona

Emma Wolton was born in Paris. She studied Philosophy for 5 years and completed her Master’s degree in 2022 at the University PSL-École Normale Supérieure. Currently, she is a PhD student in Geography at the Institut Agro Angers-Pôle Paysage and a member of the “Environment : Concepts and Norms” team at the Institut Jean Nicod (ENS, Paris). Her thesis focuses on the aesthetics and evolution of landscapes in the context of environmental transition. She is studying the impact that two mining projects could have on landscapes, as well as the emotional and identity-based relationship between inhabitants and their environment. Her two research sites are in Arizona (USA) and Sweden.


[1] https://skyislandalliance.org/the-sky-islands/

[2] An endemic species is one found nowhere else in the world.

[3] https://www.tucsonsentinel.com/local/report/010623_hudbay_copper_excavation/hudbay-ramps-up-excavation-copper-world-complex-as-local-resistance-expands/

[4] “Ours is the Land” is a short film produced by the Tohono O’odham Nation that depicts the spiritual, cultural and physical bond between the Tohono O’odham people of Arizona and the Santa Rita Mountains.

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