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.
Hannah Reardon is a Montreal-based researcher trained in Political Science and Anthropology.