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.
All Eyes on Brazil
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,
"Highway of riches, road to ruin" Excellent reporting from the Globe and Mail's Stephanie Nolan
The 30 million people - almost a Canada - who live in the forest want better lives, and so do millions more Brazilians. It does not follow that these can only be achieved by blindly harvesting the trees, digging out the minerals, damming the rivers, clearing the forest for pastures.
I'm a long-time fan of the Globe and Mail's Stephanie Nolan, but her more recent work on Brazil has been above and beyond the already high standard I've come to expect from her. This Saturday, January 27th, the Globe published her latest long piece from the paper's Brazil office, which focuses on the Amazon's deforestation crisis. Nolan and her team take off on a 2,000km trip along the BR-163, the North-South highway artery which connects Mato Grosso to Pará. With beautiful images and a wide variety of testimonies, Nolan describes the different economic forces contributing to the deforestation and destruction that threatens the Amazon. Agroforestry, cattle ranching, mining and logging are exposed as the drivers of deforestation in Nolan's rich and compelling prose. Although deforestation decreased significantly between 2004 and 2014, in large part thanks to better monitoring through satellite imagery and other GIS technologies, in the past few years, it was been on the rise again. Big business in the Amazon, such as Nolan describes (and an administration in Brasilia keen to support it) has been driving new exploitative forays into the Amazon. As always, the issues are extremely complex: how to offer better livelihoods to the regions inhabitants while protecting the landscape as well? But one thing is clear: destroying the forest by opening the floodgates to multinationals is not the answer. Rather, land redistribution, and conservation policy which incorporates local communities that adopt sustainable farming methods and extraction of renewable forest resources can help to stabilize things by offering sustainable and regulated alternatives to families desperate to secure a livelihood through any possible means. Justice and increased regulation will be necessary to combat corruption in large-scale initiatives.
As Nolan says: "There is in fact compelling data to show that all of these resources would ultimately be worth more left in place. But those who hold power in Brazil today- and who are signing deals and making decisions about irrevocable steps in the Amazon- don't see it that way."
To spread consciousness about this fact is a first step in applying pressure to see a change. Read up as much as you can, think critically, and support work that spreads awareness. Read on for Ms. Nolan's article, it is certainly a compelling discussion of the urgent issues which continue to threaten the Amazon today.
The Power of Google Earth!
Have a look at this amazing video, released by Google, showing a three-decade time-lapse of the Earth. The Google Earth KMZ file available under the discover tab allows you to play around with the time lapse feature in the Calha Norte region and see for yourself how deforestation and urban sprawl have transformed the Amazon. This video is a powerful demonstration of what GIS technologies can contribute to our understanding of political ecology, ie. how social phenomena such as urban sprawl transform our physical landscape. This increased awareness can hopefully lead to better policy to limit the negative consequences of such phenomena.
On August 24th, the BBC published an article declaring that Brazil’s President, Michel Temer, had opened a vast reserve in the Amazon, the size of Denmark, for commercial mining. Despite tepid assurances that indigenous reserves and protected areas, which make up 70% of the Renca area, will not be affected, backlash from national and international environmental groups was vociferous. The result was a swift suspension of Temer’s decree. Although the suspension temporarily halts “administrative acts based on the decree”, Temer’s government is sure to appeal the verdict.
Here’s what you need to know about the Renca controversy:
Renca stands for “Reserva Mineral de Cobre e seus Associados” which translates to “Reserve for Copper Minerals and Associates”. It is crucial to understand that Renca is not and never was a protected area; it was land set aside for mineral exploration and research, but which prohibited mining activity. Renca was created on February 24th, 1984 through Decree n˚89.404. At the time Brazil was governed by a military dictatorship with a fierce agenda to modernize the Amazon region and bring its own brand of state-sponsored economic development. The next two blog posts on this site will talk more about different modernizing pushes throughout the history of the Amazon in a two-part series. Stay tuned for this in the next couple weeks!
At the time of Renca’s creation it was postulated that the Company for Mineral Resource Research (Companhia de Pesquisa de Recursos Minerais, or CPRM in Portuguese) would have exclusive rights to conduct research within the area to evaluate the mineral deposits which they anticipated would be found in the area. Their discoveries were to be negotiated by private mining companies to determine the viability of extraction (ler mais).
The CPRM did conduct its research and discovered promising deposits of some materials, leading some to declare that Renca was the Amazon region most likely to contain valuable recognized minerals including gold, silver, platinum, copper, nickel, iron and manganese, among others (ler mais).
However, in 1994 the CPRM became a public company and was restricted from acting in the area by article 5 of law n˚8970, which impedes mineral resource research unless it is exceptionally approved as a matter of national interest by the Ministry of Mining and Energy. At this stage, Brazil had transitioned back to a civilian democracy and was seeking to reverse some of the more draconian policies of the dictatorship era.
These legislative adjustments halted legal mining activity for a couple of decades since the lack of regulation and limited physical access translated into high production costs which deterred private investors from exploring the mineral-rich Renca zone. This did not mean that all activity ceased.
When Renca was created in 1984, only one protected area existed within the area designated of interest for mineral exploration. Since then 8 more conservation units have been created. The protected areas which overlap with the Renca reserve include: ESEC Jari, PARNA Montanhas do Tumucumaque, REBIO Maicuru, FES do Paru, RESEX do Rio Cajari, FES Amapá, RDS Iratapuru and two indigenous territories, Waiãpi and Rio Paru d’Este. See below:
The first 3 protected areas, ESEC Jari, PARNA Montanhas do Tumucumaque, and REBIO Maicuru, are all of the integral protection type. This means that, legally, all human activity should be prohibited within their boundaries so as to protect the precious biodiversity of the area. As we’ve seen in the Google Earth application, this doesn’t always work in practice, but we’ll return to this shortly.
The other 4 areas are sustainable use reserves, meaning that some extractive activities are permitted as long as they follow certain sustainability guidelines. Not all of these areas permit mining specifically. For the RESEX do Rio Cajari and FES Amapá it has already been decided by the managing authorities that mining will not be permitted in these areas. FES do Paru will apparently open some areas for mining. As for the RDS Iratapuru, there is no official management plan yet to sanction extractive activities. Thus, for the time being, mining will be prohibited, but should the future management plan approve commercial mining, this decision may be reversed.
With regards to the two indigenous territories, Waiãpi and Rio Paru d’Este, these lands are delimited for the exclusive use of their indigenous inhabitants according to the Funai, Brazil’s ministry for indigenous affairs. Unfortunately, much like the region’s protected areas, securing the territorial integrity of these reserves against illegal encroachments is made incredibly difficult by a lack of institutional presence, financial resources and political will.
So, what are the risks to the protected areas?
Most of the potential mineral resources can be found within the protected areas created after Renca was established. Many environmentalists and activists fear that legal mining in the areas approved by Temer’s decree will attract illegal miners, and significant migration which will put pressure on the region’s resources.
These fears are well-founded. Check out Rebio Maicuru on the Google app in the Discover tab. You’ll see an image of a flyover which shows extensive deforestation associated with illegal mining projects which have been active for over a decade. If you speak Portuguese check out this article by Bruno Calixto, it includes an interview with my former supervisor at Imazon, Jakeline Pereira, which affirms that at the time of the creation of the management plan for the Rebio Maicuru in 2008, there were already over 1000 miners operating illegally in the area, despite the territory having been set aside as a crucial biodiversity reserve. Today, estimates suggest that the number of miners has at least doubled, and with the abolition of Renca, the number is sure to rise further.
The life of an illegal miner is tough. Typically, illegal mines are opened by a “dono” who rarely, if ever, travels to the area but provides the financial capital for equipment and exploration. The miners themselves operate under a system of debt bondage similar to that of rubber tappers in boom times. Everything on the camp is imported at exorbitant prices and purchased in gold. Workers toil for an average of 60 hours a week under precarious health and safety conditions. Many die of malaria and other tropical diseases or untreated injuries.
The main reason this occurs according to Jakeline, is that these protected areas lack the resources to be fully implemented. For example, in the case of the FES Paru, only 2 people are in charge of monitoring and managing over 7 million hectares of protected land.
Temer’s decree, on paper, attempts to bring responsible, modernized mining to the region. But, given the difficulties that exist already for ensuring the integrity of the region’s conservation units, many worry that the proposal will simply exacerbate existing issues. The WWF-Brazil, for example, warns that there are immense risks in opening up a territory that is already fragile in its implementation of environmental protections for commercial mining.
After the outcry which followed the initial announcement on August 23rd, Temer’s government revised the decree with some clarifications, insisting that the area opened for exploration would not harm the existing protected areas. The new document also assigned a committee to accompany the opening of Renca which includes members of the Ministry of Mining and Energy, the Ministry of Environment, the Cabinet for Institutional security, the Ministry of Justice, the National Agency for Mining, and the Civil Cabinet. This committee is supposed to ensure the proper implementation of the decree should the suspension of it be reversed.
Given the already long history of precarious enforcement of environmental protection in the region, activists should be dubious of this limited concession to their demands. More than a Federal committee of politicians, there should be open discussion with the various local stakeholders in the region, including indigenous leaders and community organizations. What the region needs is cooperation with these stakeholders and an influx of Federal resources to secure the implementation of protected areas and to halt illegal mining within their boundaries. These should be the government’s top priorities prior to any conversation about abolishing Renca, and not as a mere afterthought.
The immensity of space
One of the most influential books that I have ever read, The Fate of the Forest by Susanna Hecht, opens with the following epigraph:
“It is entirely impossible in the Amazon to take stock of the vastness, which can be measured only in fragments; of the expansiveness of space, which must be diminished to be appraised; of the grandeur which allows itself to be seen only by making itself tiny, through microscopes; and of an infinity which is meted out little by little, slowly, indefinitely, excruciatingly. The land is still mysterious. Its space is like Milton’s: it hides from itself. Its amplitude cancels itself out, melts away as it sinks on every side, bound to the inexorable geometry of the earth’s curvature or deluding curious onlookers with the treacherous uniformity of its immutable appearance. Human intelligence cannot bear the brunt of this portentous reality at one swoop. The mind will have to grow with it, adapting to it, in order to master it. To see it, men must give up the idea of stripping off its veils.”
Euclides da Cunha, Brazilian journalist and amateur geologist, author of Rebellion in the Backlands (Os Sertões) wrote these words in 1904.
This first blog post is an homage to these words, and a reflection on how they encompass the essence of what the Calha Norte portal is attempting to achieve. This quote has guided me throughout much of the work behind creating this platform. I think it is only just to begin this blog with a conscious exploration of its significance.
The first thing that I love about da Cunha’s description is that it succeeds in capturing the mystery of the Amazon forest. Those who visit the Amazon are often struck by the magic that seeps from every leaf, every branch, every droplet of rain. The legends you hear from locals will raise the hair on the back of your neck, partly because in this mystical ambience you feel that even the most extravagant might possibly be true. Isolation and the unknown breed superstition and mystique, and the Amazon offers all of this in spades. This mystique is also intrigue, it draws the visitor in, fascinates them with uncovering the secrets of this rich and fertile land.
The line, “Its space is like Milton’s: it hides from itself” refers to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Da Cunha draws on his cosmic sense of space to describe the tension between the sense of an immutable, uniform order which overcomes the onlooker as they gaze out over a seemingly endless sea of green, and an overwhelming sense of disorder in the cacophony which hides beneath its foliage. Can this natural world be known?
This tension may be the heart of our confused human relationship to nature and the environment. On the one hand it is external to us, it allows itself to be “measured in fragments”, to be “meted out little by little”. And yet, on the other hand “human intelligence cannot bear the brunt of this portentous reality at one swoop”, perhaps because understanding ourselves in relation to it confuses our ability to create intelligible fragments. Da Cunha, as a good 20th century naturalist, believed in the intelligibility of nature through science. He advocated a fragmentation of this grand, overwhelming reality into classifications easily readable by the human mind. Yet, he understands that in this manner “infinity” can be “meted out” only at the most “excruciating” pace. In other words, although he saw this method as necessary he also recognized the limitations of it. We will never be able to understand the immensity, the infinite diversity of this mystical region through science, fragmentation and classification alone. If we are to understand the immensity as it is, “The mind will have to grow with it, adapting to it, in order to master it. To see it, men must give up the idea of stripping off its veils.”
In a broad, philosophical sense, the discovery maps on this website are mostly a collection of veils, from which you can pick and choose. Will you study this region through a conservationist veil, focusing on how deforestation has decreased in municipal areas since the creation of national parks? Or will you peer under the veil of human development to see that many communities that live within protected areas are forbidden from commercializing resources from the land they live on, and in consequence are barely able to scrape together a subsistence lifestyle?
Da Cunha’s reflections are mostly related to a holistic understanding of the natural world, but much of the data on this site looks more at human diversity in the Amazon than the region's biodiversity. Much has been done to render the natural world comprehensible through modern science, but the real goal of this site is to break down the stark separation between the human and the natural world. In reality, they are one and the same. Even though the Amazon might seem like an immutable, pristine sea of green, most of it has at some point or another been altered by human activity, and continues to be, sometimes for good reasons, more often on larger scales with devastating consequences.
Through these maps, I am attempting to offer the user a more humanistic veil through which they might look at the Amazon. Despite its mystique, and its daunting spread of seemingly endless green, the Amazon is inhabited by an astonishing diversity of people, with different motivations, livelihoods, and relationships to the land around them. These people are the focus of this portal, as much as the land they live on.
By choosing to look through a human veil, I must consciously acknowledge what is being left out. There is not much information on biodiversity in the maps, this may be a direction into which the project could grow. It would be good to keep track of endangered species numbers within protected areas in order to monitor how much these areas truly prevent poaching – these are some figures that I would like to see on this site, but which I haven’t been able to collect yet. Still, I strongly believe that in the conscious act of choosing lenses, we can better focus on one aspect, without forgetting that this aspect does not exist in isolation, but is constantly in interrelationships of flux with an infinity of other factors around us.
And so, da Cunha’s words ring true: to understand the portentous reality of the Amazon, we can only see through limited fragments. But if we recognize that what we are seeing are mere layers of a far more complex whole, perhaps we inch a little bit closer to that magnificent whole.
Our minds have still not grown enough to perceive reality through all its veils simultaneously, but we continue each in our humble ways to “mete out infinity, little by little”.
In full conscience of the importance of this endeavour, this website, and all the work behind it, represent my own humble contribution to an understanding of the region. All I can offer for now is another lens through which to interpret the veiled reality that is the Amazon, but I hope that in offering a reflective lens, which recognizes its limitations as learning opportunities in themselves, I can embody da Cunha’s words in full conscience.
The space is still immense, what you can find on this site is nothing but the tiniest droplets of it. Still, hopefully, what you experience here may offer a small window into the complexity of the whole; a self-conscious veil through which you might glimpse infinity.
Hannah Reardon is a Montreal-based researcher trained in Political Science and Anthropology.