When people think of mining in Brazil it would seem logical that they imagine the state of Minas Gerais, currently the Brazilian state with the largest mining economy in the country. However, few people know that the state of Pará is in a close second place. A reliable marker of this rivalry is Vale's different operations in the two states. Vale is the company responsible for the tragedy in Brumadinho, which occurred last month in Minas, as well as the Mariana disaster two years ago. According to an article published by Amazonia Real, Vale's operations in the north and in the south of the country are vastly different. In the south, in Minas Gerais where the two dam disasters occurred, the company's operations are characterized by the use of archaic drainage methods and the use of unreliable dams to contain mining refuse – the type of dams which broke in both Mariana and Brumadinho, killing hundreds and polluting rivers and ecosystems for miles around. In the north, however, Vale has virtually phased out all dams of this type, therefore its operations appear to be less risky. Furthermore, the state government has launched a widespread survey of mining dams throughout the territory, and plans to outlaw all dams of the type which burst in Brumadinho.
This is good news, but all is not clear on the horizon. Spills, overflows and accidents (environmental crimes) related to mining face a great deal of impunity in Brazil. Just last year an overflow of toxic waste from the aluminum producer Hydro Alunorte in Barcarena, Pará resulted in the pollution of rivers, towns and ecosystems in close proximity to the mining operations.
Hydro Alunorte basin on 22/02/2018 (Photo: Pedrosa Neto/Amazônia Real), taken from : Amazonia Real on 16/02/2019
A report released by the Evandro Chagas Institute, an independent health research organization, demonstrated that high levels of arsenic, mercury, cobalt, uranium, aluminum and copper were found in the waterways of the municipality of Barcarena. Despite the abundant proof, Hydro Alunorte has been pursuing an environmental researcher from the Federal University of Pará for supposedly slandering the company and publishing inaccurate information.
Some communities have received compensation for the devastating health impacts of this spill, although many complain that the small compensation packages are insufficient (on average affected families have been receiving about R$670, the equivalent of about CAD$240 to buy water, food and supplies). Quilombola communities, including the small community of Vila Nova, one of many touched by the spill, have not received any compensation, despite numerous denunciations of contaminated water supplies, soil and crops (see Amazonia Real).
Even while such cases continue to occur, the mining industry in Pará is growing in leaps and bounds. Some anticipate that it will likely overtake Minas Gerais and becomes the largest mining state in the country. Furthermore, if the proposed action is taken to outlaw the types of dams which burst in Brumadinho and Mariana, then companies like Vale will likely step up the volume of their operations in Pará to compensate. In the case of Vale, this would push the volume of mining production in Pará from 40 million tons to up to 270 million tons over the next two years (Amazonia Real).
In light of these seemingly inevitable developments, the state of Pará must act swiftly to impose regulations on the burgeoning mining industry, and crack down on corporate impunity. Cases like Hydro Alunorte, Brumadinho and Mariana must no longer be the norm. And to ensure that these measures are taken, those of us who care deeply about the people and the environment in these regions must keep all eyes on Brazil.
Satellite image of the Hydro Alunorte operations in close proximity to the town of Barcarena. Screenshot taken from the Calha Norte database in Google Earth.
This blog has lain dormant for a little while now, much to my regret. On the personal front, things have been busy. In the past year, I attended my first conference (to talk about this project), was approached with the opportunity to publish my first article, started a new degree, and have made plans for an impending return to Brazil. All this seems rather tame, however, compared to the massive upheavals in Brazil. I have been watching closely but have been hesitant to actually offer my two cents. However, given the developments since Jair Bolsonaro was sworn in January 1st, I can hold my tongue no longer. I am reviving this blog, with the noble intention of publishing something every other week. My goal is to keep eyes on Brazil, and to keep record of the political developments which will impact the Calha Norte region and Amazonia more widely. I hope that if anyone stumbles across this humble little blog, it might provide some multi-lingual news resources to help those concerned keep abreast of recent developments, political and environmental.
Today I will keep this little revival post relatively short, but I'd like to do a brief recap of some of the events that have taken place since January 1st of this year. As the international press covered in some detail, within moments of being sworn into office, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's new president, kneecapped the Ministry of the Environment by splintering some of its major administrative organs and assigning them to the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Regional Development. In an equally swift brush of a pen, Bolsonaro also folded the Ministry of Indigenous Affairs (FUNAI) into two separate ministries. The demarcation and administration of indigenous and quilombola lands now falls to the Ministry of Agriculture, while the rest of the FUNAI and its responsibilities falls to the newly-minted Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, overseen by a far-right evangelical leader (see here for an account of these actions in Portuguese).
Despite the uproar and the protests from national and international spectators, these actions remain in place and have set a clear tone for how Bolsonaro's presidency will approach environmental concerns. Researchers, activists and environmentalists of all stripes are on high alert. See this interview (in Portuguese) with Professor Rogerio Almeida of the Federal University of Western Pará where he discusses major concerns with Bolsonaro's actions and the historical trajectory which has led Amazonia to this moment. This article (also in Portuguese) with journalist Lúcio Flávio Pinto is also worth a read for similar thoughts and reflections. The consensus is clear: Bolsonaro's actions forebode disastrous environmental consequences for the Amazon forest, and for the rights of the under-privileged people who inhabit it; but, truth be told, this is nothing new. The Amazon has been the playground of rich and privileged developers since the time it was discovered by European explorers. The events unfolding now may be same old tiger, who has never changed his stripes. The difference is, now he isn't hiding who he is or what his intentions are.
As if all this wasn't enough, on January 25th a dam burst in Brumadinho, Mato Grosso, killing hundreds and spilling mind-boggling quantities of toxic waste into nearby rivers. The culprit: Vale mining company, the same entity responsible for the Mariana disaster which occurred three years ago. The lesson? Major mining companies such as Vale act with relative impunity in the Amazon; they do what they like, when they like. Bruno Stankevicius Bassi reports.
On more personal terms, I am increasingly concerned by the thought of similar operations in the state of Pará, in the Calha Norte region. The state of Pará has over 64 mineral waste deposit dams, like the one that burst in Brumadinho. Of those 64, 18 are considered 'high risk'; the most dangerous of them is owned by, guess who? Vale. The state government has designated a task force to verify the status of these dams but for the time being, Vale has not closed any of its operations in Pará.
Meanwhile, the federal environmental authority, Ibama, has demanded the MRN bauxite company, which operates Brazil's largest bauxite mine within the boundaries of the Saracá-Taquera National Park, develop an emergency plan to avoid a disaster, should a Brumadinho-situation occur. The mineral deposit dams for the MRN mine are less than half a kilometre from the Boa Vista quilombola territory, and in close proximity to the Trombetas river which flows into the Amazon river. Boa Vista community-members have been denouncing the precarious nature of this dam for over a year, to no avail. See this report by Comissão Pro-Índio de São Paulo for more details (Portuguese). On the contrary, things seem to be complicating themselves for communities along the Trombetas river, as Bolsonaro's government recently decreed the construction of a new hydroelectric project in this same area.
Things are looking pretty bleak as the first month of Bolsonaro's presidency draws to a close. Researchers are running scared, as scholarships are being cut for under-privileged students, and others fear losing funding based on "ideological testing".
Hopes for integrated conservation and sustainable livelihood plans seem like a bit of a pipe-dream right now, but this report from Brazil's Ministry of Agriculture (Empraba) from 2016 is a good reminder that there are still plenty of researchers, activists and civil servants who still believe in the possibility of an Amazon which survives by way of locally-managed conservation schemes. These are the voices that we should project, now more than ever. If you care to listen, stay tuned.
See you back here soon,
Hannah Reardon is a Montreal-based researcher trained in Political Science and Anthropology.