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Story Publication logo November 27, 2023

Paradise Lost? Brazil’s Biggest Bauxite Mining Firm Denies Riverine Rights (Portuguese)


mining site

This project investigates the conditions of legal and illegal mining in the Amazon.

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Multiple Authors
  • Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN), Brazil’s largest bauxite producer, launched a new mining project in the Amazon region in 2019 but failed to notify and consult four impacted traditional riverine communities that have been established for generations. The villages say their lives are heavily impacted.
  • MRN’s stance of no significant impact is backed by IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, because it only is required to recognize Indigenous and Quilombola populations as legitimate traditional peoples guaranteed prior, free, informed consultation — a right enshrined in international law.
  • Other traditional riverine communities are being denied such a right, say critics who are calling on President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government to instruct IBAMA to reduce the impact of mining on riverine communities.
  • Action by IBAMA could help preserve the way of life for hundreds of traditional riverine people likely to be affected by a series of new mines planned by MRN. The ruling could also act as a precedent for other traditional communities not currently guaranteed prior, free, informed consultation.

ORIXIMINÁ, Pará state, Brazil — Raimunda de Souza is 62 years old. She was born in the Amazon, in a vast region of rainforest fed by pristine lakes and streams. “A paradise” is how she defines the place where she, her parents, grandparents and great-grandparents first opened their eyes. Oriximiná municipality, their long-time home territory, covers 107,603 square kilometres (41,546 square miles), an area larger than Portugal.

It was in this vast expanse of forest that Raimunda’s daughters and her grandchildren were also born, in the community of São Tomé, one of four villages located on Lake Maria Pixi, where 183 other families live.

But paradise is on the cusp of disappearing, according to Lake Maria Pixi area residents, because of events that began to unfold in 2018.

Traditional communities “invisibilized”

That’s the year, say the riverine communities, that they were totally ignored by Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN), Brazil’s largest bauxite producer, as it wrote up an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for a new mine the company was planning on the Aramã Plateau in proximity to the four communities (São Tomé, São Francisco, São Sebastião and Espírito Santo).

EIAs — required as part of Brazil’s federal environmental licensing process —assess the likely environmental and social impacts of new mines, along with other projects, and list necessary mitigating and compensatory measures.

But in this case, the EIA was written as if the four villages didn’t exist at all.

study commissioned later by the São Paulo Pro-Indian Commission (CPI) analyzed MRN’s licensing process, and the NGO stated that the mining firm’s EIA falsely claimed that “in the area of the project there are no communities, whether traditional or not.” IBAMA, Brazil’s main environmental agency, reviewed the EIA and gave the mining company an operating licence at the end of 2018.

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The outraged communities say they were “invisibilized.” In fact, they say they knew nothing in advance of MRN’s plan and only found out it was opening a mine near their homes when residents heard the noise of machines ripping down the forest.

“We were not consulted at all,” says Jesi Ferreira de Castro, coordinator of the São Francisco community. In 2019, the citizens of the four communities asked MRN to stop work on the mine until the firm had consulted them. MRN rejected the request.

This community center, at Boa Nova in the Sapucuá-Trombetas Agro-Extractive Project (PAE), is where riverine families meet to discuss community matters.
The Boa Nova community center, in the Sapucuá-Trombetas Agro-Extractive Project (PAE), is where riverine families meet to discuss local matters. While the center is located within the PAE, officially allocated to the riverine families, the “work points” where community members hunt, fish and cultivate gardens lie within the Saracá-Taquera National Forest (FLONA), which the families are now banned from entering. Image courtesy of Teresa Harari. Brazil.

It was February 2020 when a Mongabay team of journalists visited Porto Trombetas — MRN’s company town — and asked its sustainability director, Vladimir Moreira, about the failure to consult the riverine communities. He replies that only Indigenous peoples and Quilombola communities are entitled to “prior, free and informed consultation,” as guaranteed by the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, which Brazil has ratified.

However, he says, MRN had opened communications with the communities after their complaint as an expression of good will. But during the COVID-19 pandemic, this dialogue ended. Meanwhile, work on the new Aramã mine continued apace, with mining considered an “essential activity” by the government of then Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and thus excluded from the nation’s pandemic lockdown.

Satellite images released by CPI show that between May 2020 and October 2021, the 345-hectare (852-acre) Aramã Plateau was entirely deforested, bringing severe impacts to community livelihoods and quality of life, say residents.

Though the damage had largely been done by the time Mongabay arrived in the region, the communities say they hope their full cooperation with Mongabay would get their story told and help others avoid what has happened to them.

Where rainforest once stood: Large areas within the Saracá-Taquera National Forest (FLONA), once forested and used by dozens of riverine families to collect native fruits, were cleared to make way for the Aramã bauxite mine. August 2021.
Where rainforest once stood: Large areas within the Saracá-Taquera National Forest (FLONA), once heavily forested and used by dozens of riverine families to collect native fruits, were cleared to make way for the Aramã bauxite mine. Image courtesy of Jesi de Castro. Brazil. August 2021.

Aramã mine impacts

Humberto de Castro, from the São Francisco community, describes the serious food security problems caused by the deforestation and noise stemming from the new bauxite mine: “Today we are suffering because in the past, when there were few fish, we hunted. We waited for the animals under the piquiá [tree].  But now there are almost no animals left.”

The piquiá tree species long played a key role in local hunting, as it attracted the paca (a large rodent), peccary, deer and other mammals the people hunted. On the edge of the Aramã Plateau stood a centuries-old piquiá tree, where villagers laid in wait for game.

But this piquiá, and countless other trees used by animals and the communities, were felled to make way for MRN’s mine. “Today, if you spend a night in the [nearby] woods trying to hunt, you’ll go home empty-handed,” says Iderval Cavalcante, coordinator of the São Tomé community.

Forest fruits and nuts collected for family consumption or to generate income — including Brazil nuts and the fruits of the patauá and bacaba palm trees — have also become scarce.

Raimunda de Souza laments the changes: “It’s very sad for us to see our forests, our woods, being destroyed like this. We have lost the abundance we once had and the old peace too. Our water has been affected too. Before it was transparent but now it is different, it’s red,” tainted by disruptions due to the mining.

In the community of São Sebastião, residents say that jaguars have started killing the pigs they raise to eat. “These jaguars, there were none here before. They are coming because hunger is striking them. The part of the forest where they used to hunt has been cut down,” says community coordinator Diego Gato.

While the families suffered, MRN thrived, and in 2022 even received an international certificate from the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI), for the sustainability of its operations. Mongabay contacted MRN several times in 2022 and 2023 to discuss the Aramã mine, but it did not reply.

Legislation exists in Brazil to protect traditional communities but, lobbied by mining firms, authorities often have interpreted the law in favor of the companies and against local communities. The Lago Maria Pixi residents point to what happened to them as an example.

Flowers of the native piquiá tree
Rainforest animals love to eat the flowers of the native piquiá tree, so hunters from the riverine communities built a blind near an old piquiá tree in Saracá-Taquera National Forest (FLONA). When out on a nocturnal hunting trip, the hunters concealed themselves in the blind to lie in wait for game. Like many other trees, this old piquiá has since been felled to make way for the Aramã mine. Image by Jovinocheik via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
The MRN mining company put up temporary barriers to try to contain soil erosion, runoff and landslides that started after the company clear-cut the plateau to open the Aramã mine.
The MRN mining company put up temporary barriers to try to contain soil erosion, runoff and landslides that started after the company clear-cut the plateau to open the Aramã mine. But problems persist. Image courtesy of Teresa Harari.

“We have become an alien people”

The four communities impacted by the Aramã mine are located inside one of Brazil’s Agro-Extractive Settlement Projects (PAEs), an agrarian reform unit designation that gives traditional populations the exclusive right to use the land. Called the Sapucuá-Trombetas Agro-Extractive Settlement Project, this PAE shares its northern boundary with a FLONA — a federal conservation unit where sustainable exploitation of forest resources is permitted.

The 429,000-hectare (1.1 million-acre) Saracá-Taquera National Forest (FLONA) was created in 1989, before the PAE, and it was superimposed atop several riverine and Quilombola communities (settlements originally established by runaway enslaved people and still inhabited by their descendants).

Brazil’s largest bauxite mine, owned by MRN and in operation since the 1970s, was also located within the FLONA. While the decree creating the FLONA banned the communities from the area, it allowed mining to continue.

In 2010, Brazil’s Agrarian Reform Institute, INCRA, and the Pará Land Institute created the Sapucuá-Trombetas PAE, covering 67,749 hectares (167,000 acres), to recognize the right of the neglected communities to part of the territory they traditionally occupied.

While the communities’ houses and some of their gardens were located within the PAE, many of the places where they hunt, fish, cultivate gardens and collect forest products were not. “These places, called ‘work points,’ play a fundamental role in the life of the riverine people,” explains geographer Hugo Gravina, who is studying the dynamics of riverine occupation in the region.

For 30 years the riverine communities went on using these work points, despite their lying outside the PAE. But once work on the Aramã mine began, that situation changed. Officials from the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity (ICMBio) came to the region in March 2021 to monitor the families’ activities.

ICMBio fined the families for opening small patches of land within the FLONA to subsistence agriculture and pasture, and also fined them for artisanal centers that produced manioc flour, a staple food, on the FLONA’s edge near the Aramã mine.

A São Sebastião resident, who was fined $40,000 reais ($7,937) for planting 4 hectares (10 acres) within the FLONA, complained to the CPI. He says that police and ICMBio officials “arrived at our house and surrounded the entire area. One came from behind me, another from the side with his hand on the trigger of his rifle.” At the time, this resident attests, he was unarmed and making manioc flour with his wife and daughter.

Other citizens claim they’ve been deprived of all their rights. “It seems we have become an alien people to them. But, if they stop us farming, how will we live?” asks Humberto de Castro.

ICMBio did not respond to Mongabay’s attempts to contact them in 2021 and 2022. Only in 2023, after the change in Brazilian presidential administrations, did ICMBio respond. By email, it states that those fined “are not traditional residents of the Saracá-Taquera FLONA” and “are not authorized to fell forest.”

But all the residents interviewed by Mongabay say they were born in the Lago Maria Pixi communities. Gravina’s research shows that the areas of the FLONA used by the families are often the same ones used by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

Vegetation surrounding the Aramã bauxite mine is covered in reddish dust.
Vegetation surrounding the Aramã bauxite mine is covered in reddish dust. “It wasn’t like this before the mining company started mining at Aramã,” says community leader Jesi de Castro. Image courtesy of Teresa Harari.

Defining “tribal peoples”

In August 2021, the four communities won a partial victory when IBAMA requested a study from MRN identifying the impacts of the Aramã mine. However, Golder Associates Brasil Consultoria, the consultancy firm hired by MRN, did not find “a causal relationship between mining activities on the Aramã Plateau and the complaints by the Lake Maria Pixi communities.” Based on this study, IBAMA decided in August 2022 not to change MRN’s operating licence. The communities achieved no redress of their grievances.

The apparent reason why IBAMA can dismiss the communities’ repeated demands for a proper, in-depth consultation is that its legal office, like MRN, does not consider the riverine communities to be covered by the ILO’s definition of “tribal peoples.”

But the Public Federal Ministry (MPF), a group of independent public litigators within the government, does not concur. In a declaration issued in 2014, MPF writes, “Traditional communities are included in the concept of tribal peoples in Convention No. 169 of the International Labour Organization.”

Carlos Marés de Souza Filho, an eminent Brazilian jurist, agrees. In a recent article he explains that “the term ‘tribal peoples,’ used in Convention 169, should be understood in the same sense as the term ‘non-indigenous traditional populations, groups or communities’ is used in Brazilian laws.”

He argues that Brazilian regulations that include only Indigenous peoples and Quilombolas, and exclude other traditional populations, cannot override the wider definition found in Convention 169, which is equivalent to an international human rights treaty signed by Brazil.

By adopting a different interpretation, IBAMA paves the way for other government agencies, and for large companies like MRN, to ignore the socioenvironmental impacts of mines and other projects on long-established riverine populations.

Once construction work started on the Aramã mine, signs appeared warning riverine families not to enter the Saracá-Taquera National Forest (FLONA), which they had freely visited for many years to collect fruit and other forest products.
Once construction work started on the Aramã mine, signs appeared warning riverine families not to enter the Saracá-Taquera National Forest (FLONA), which they had freely visited for many years to collect fruit and other forest products. Image courtesy of Jesi de Castro. August 2021.

The risk of greenwashing

In February 2022, MRN was certified by the international Aluminium Stewardship Initiative (ASI). The ASI seal acts as a guarantee for large consumers — such as car manufacturers — that their suppliers operate with high levels of social and environmental responsibility. Among the criteria used in the evaluation is respect for individual and collective human rights.

Mongabay contacted Fiona Solomon, ASI’s executive director, and asked whether, during the certification process, its auditors had spoken to the Lake Maria Pixi communities. She replied that the Aramā mine had not been discussed in the report.

In a public letter to ASI in February 2022, the international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) recommended that the ASI develop “across its human rights standard, criteria focused on the outcomes suffered by affected communities, rather than on management systems and processes that companies have in place.”

HRW was alerted to this issue when mining companies in Guinea in West Africa were ASI certified, even though those mining firms’ activities had committed serious human rights violations against local communities. HRW’s recommendation applies to the Aramã mine as well.

Community center located beside Lake Maria Pixi
A community center located beside Lake Maria Pixi. It, along with the families’ homes, and some of their areas of subsistence agriculture, were recognized as part of “riverine occupation” when the Sapucuá-Trombetas Agro-Extractive Settlement Project (PAE) was created in 2010 by the Brazilian government’s Agrarian Reform Institute, INCRA, and the Pará Land Institute. But many locales where the families hunted, fished and collected forest products were left outside the PAE project. Image courtesy of Brian Garvey, University of Strathclyde and British Academy-funded project Unauthorised Biographies of Commodity Chains.”

Change may lie ahead

Brazil’s policies regarding protections for traditional communities may change under the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Like ICMBio, IBAMA finally responded to Mongabay’s request for an interview in 2023 after the change in federal government.

IBAMA states that the institute’s current management “intends to seek closer ties with traditional communities to better understand the impacts of projects on their way of life and demand measures from businesses to adequately reduce or compensate for these impacts.”

If IBAMA reverses its stance, this could mean that other communities will be spared the disdain shown to the Lake Maria Pixi communities. But much is at stake in that region and time is of the essence: MRN has drawn up a “New Mines Project” to clear and excavate 6,446 hectares (15,928 acres) of native forests between 2026 and 2042, impacting scores of traditional communities.

Lúcia Andrade, CPI’s executive coordinator, is calling for studies into the cumulative impact of MRN’s 40 years of mining in the Oriximiná region. “A study of this nature would help us understand the real magnitude of the impact of mining on local communities and the environment,” she says.

Meanwhile, the Lake Maria Pixi communities continue struggling to have their voices heard. “The mining company has a lot of money and power, whereas we only have words,” says Jesi Ferreira, who assisted in Mongabay’s investigation.

Paradise, and justice, hang in the balance, say residents.