Barrage of mining requests targets Brazil’s isolated indigenous peoples

  • Nearly 4,000 requests have been submitted for mining-related activities on 31 indigenous reserves and 17 protected areas in Brazil, according to recently obtained data from the nongovernmental Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) and the National Mining Agency.
  • The targeted areas are home to 71 known isolated indigenous communities, a group whose population is already considered one of the most vulnerable in the country.
  • The requests are part of a wave of sweeping measures led by President Jair Bolsonaro to clear the way for widespread exploitation of indigenous lands for mining, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric plants, ranching and more.
  • While deforestation in the Amazon increased by an average of 25% last year, and by 80% on indigenous lands, deforestation rates in areas where isolated peoples are present rose by 114% last year compared with 2018; when compared with 2017, the rate of increase was 364%.

The Yanomami Indigenous Territory, an area with one of the highest numbers of applications for mining-related activities in Brazil, has seven known groups of isolated peoples living within its borders. Image by Rogério Assis/ISA

Nearly 4,000 requests have been submitted for mining-related activities on 31 indigenous reserves and 17 protected areas in Brazil, according to recently obtained data.

The figures from the nongovernmental Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA) and the National Mining Agency reveal, for the first time, the extent of the mining industry’s plans that could affect up to 71 known isolated indigenous communities. Of the 3,773 requests, the vast majority, or 3,053, are for research purposes.

The ISA has catalogued 120 records of isolated peoples in the Amazon, 28 of them officially confirmed and the other 92 in the process of study and certification by the National Indian Foundation (Funai). That means the proposed mining-related activities threaten more than half of all known isolated indigenous peoples in the Amazon today, a group whose population is already considered one of the most vulnerable in the country.

The threat is compounded by the fact Funai has ordered an end to official supervision of 10 indigenous reserves inhabited by isolated peoples, as reported by the newspaper O Globo.

In practice, this further clears the path for illegal mining and mass invasions of these territories. A report by the nongovernmental Indigenous Missionary Council (CIMI) recorded 160 invasions of indigenous territories between January and September last year, a substantial increase from the 111 recorded for the whole of 2018. Experts see this as a direct consequence of the policies of President Jair Bolsonaro and the lack of action from Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who has the power to curb these invasions.

Bolsonaro recently signed a bill that clears the way for widespread exploration in indigenous lands for mining, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric plants, ranching and more. The indigenous communities will have no veto power.

In the bill, which now goes to Congress for analysis, Bolsonaro ignored two recommendations from Funai vetoing the exploration of natural resources on indigenous lands where isolated peoples live. As such, the federal government is signaling a free-for-all that defies the Constitution and international treaties Brazil has signed.

ISA researcher Antonio Oviedo said Brazil is beginning to see very clear indicators of the impact of the federal government’s policies a year since Bolsonaro took office. “Whenever he makes statements against the environmental agencies responsible for oversight, the deforestation statistics automatically jump the very same month. In terms of isolated peoples, there is a set of territories that have been heavily targeted in this surge of invasions.”

Oviedo shared statistics soon to be published in an upcoming ISA report: while deforestation in the Amazon increased by an average of 25% last year, and by 80% on indigenous lands, deforestation rates in areas where isolated peoples are present rose by 114% last year compared with 2018. When compared with 2017, the rate of increase was 364%.

“The deforestation is a clear indicator of the impact the policies are having. And the isolated peoples are suffering from increasing pressure and threats. You have a policy to weaken the coordination of isolated peoples at Funai, shutting down the monitoring bases in the Yanomami and Vale do Javari indigenous lands, for example, all of which creates a very worrying situation,” Oviedo said.

In terms of the project requests submitted to the government, Oviedo said the dismantling of Funai’s powers and a freeze on demarcating indigenous territories prevent qualified experts from discussing these projects with indigenous organizations or improving the systems to protect and monitor the lands.

“The peoples have the protocol of consultation that says they have to be consulted so that they are able to understand the project, discuss it and come to a decision. Oftentimes the government thinks that can be taken care of in a two-hour meeting,” he said.

Yanomami Indigenous Territory under threat

The isolated indigenous peoples in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory might be those most affected. The area is subject to one of the highest concentrations of mining-related requests in Brazil, with almost half its territory claimed in processes of this sort, which may directly affect the isolated communities living there.

The Yanomami Indigenous Territory has suffered for years from illegal mining and mercury contamination. Last year, the Yanomami people reported an invasion by more than 10,000 prospectors and requested help from the federal government. It was the largest recorded incursion into the territory since it was formally established in 1992.

Incursions have been a problem for decades. It’s estimated that around 20% of Brazil’s Yanomami population died of diseases introduced by prospectors during the gold rush of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Romero Jucá, president of Funai during the administration of José Sarney (1985-1990), is one of those considered most responsible. Jucá is also the author of a bill from the 1990s to allow exploration on indigenous lands, which served as the basis for the current government’s initiative.

The Yanomami people have systematically stood against exploration in their territory, whether illegal prospecting or officially approved mining. “Prospecting doesn’t bring any benefits for anyone,” said Davi Kopenawa, president of the Hutukara, the Yanomami association. “It only brings disease and environmental degradation. No amount of money can pay for our forest, the rivers and the lives of our people.”

The problem risks forcing the isolated indigenous peoples into contact with the outside world. Authorities have identified three landing strips for prospector planes and three sites of illegal exploration in zones frequented by these groups, who are especially vulnerable to diseases carried by outsiders. The Yanomami Indigenous Territory is home to seven recorded communities of people living in voluntary isolation, according to Funai data — and that’s just in the Brazilian portion of the territory.

In late 2018, the Brazilian army deactivated two of its bases in the regions of the Mucajaí and Uraricoera rivers, the main passages used by prospectors to infiltrate into the area. Since then, the number of invasions has skyrocketed, coinciding with the reconstruction of a village inside the indigenous territory known as Tatuzão do Mutum.

At the end of 2019, the Forum of Yanomami and Ye’kwana Leaders issued a letter addressed to the federal government and courts. It emphasized that the communities don’t want prospecting and mining in their territory.

“We want the government to fulfill its obligation to protect our land,” the letter says. “We want the government to remove the prospectors who are on our land and block any more prospectors from entering. We know our rights. We have already filed many complaints and we are outraged because the prospecting continues within our communities. We want action. Our grandparents, aunts and uncles have died because of the prospectors. We don’t want this history of massacres to be repeated.”

The dozens of indigenous territories that are home to isolated peoples and targeted by mining companies also include the Arariboia area in Maranhão state, Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau in Rondônia, Waimiri Atroari in Amazonas and Roraima, Piripkura in Mato Grosso, and several in Pará, such as Baú, Xikrin, Kayapó, Munduruku and Menkragnoti, among others.

The indigenous movement has seen increased activism. Raoni Metuktire, a celebrated indigenous chieftain, recently gathered some 600 leaders from 45 different ethnic groups for five days in the village of Kayapó near the Xingu River to present a united indigenous front against Bolsonaro’s policies. The leaders at that gathering roundly rejected the bill to permit mining on their lands.

“We do not accept prospecting, mining and leasing on our lands,” they declared in a statement called the Piaraçu Manifesto. “We do not accept logging, illegal fishing and hydroelectric plants. We are opposed to everything that destroys our forests and our rivers. This document was written as a cry, so that we indigenous peoples can be heard by the three Powers of the Republic, by society and by the international community.” The text also condemned what it called the Brazilian government’s ongoing project of “genocide, ethnocide and ecocide.”

Laerte Gomes, in black at center, the president of the Rondônia state legislature, visits the site of the Santa Elina zinc mine. Publicity photo.

Controversial miners top list of applicants

The requests for mining-related activities on indigenous lands were submitted by 413 companies and private individuals, according to the ISA and National Mining Agency data. But just 10 companies account for nearly half of the applications, led by Mineração Silvana, with 626, Vale (190) and Mineração Tanagra (141). Vale’s applications, which go beyond just areas that are home to isolated peoples, were recently detailed in this report.

Silvana, based in Mato Grosso state, is controlled by Mineração Santa Elina, which operates in Rondônia. An article from 2004 mentions Santa Elina as one of the companies involved in illegal diamond mining through shadowy dealings with Canadian companies in Rondônia. More recently, in 2018, Santa Elina announced a large-scale zinc-mining project in the municipality of Nova Brasilândia D’Oeste.

A company press release describes the project, called DM1, as “the fruit of ten years of investment into geological research in the region and possibly one of the most important mineral discoveries in Brazil in recent years.” Mining is scheduled to start in early 2020.

According to a media report, the president of the Rondônia state legislature, Laerte Gomes from the PSDB party, visited the site of Santa Elina’s project in Nova Brasilândia, putting himself at the company’s disposal and pledging to help “however we can should any mishaps occur.” Gomes appeared smiling and talking openly, in a common display of the close relationships between politicians and the mining industry in Brazil.

Tanagra, another of the mining companies targeting indigenous lands, is a prospecting subsidiary for parent company and global mining giant Anglo American. Along with Itamaracá, also owned by Anglo American, Tanagra issued dozens of requests to attempt to explore the National Reserve of Copper and Associates (Renca), located between the states of Pará and Amapá. In 2017, then-President Michel Temer was forced to revoke a decree opening up the reserve to mining exploration following a widespread public outcry against the measure both in Brazil and abroad.

But Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that he intends to reformulate the measure and authorize mining in Renca, an area about half the size of Portugal and one of the best-preserved parts of the Amazon.

The thousands of mining-related requests cover at least 43 minerals, with gold accounting for about 58% of the applications. These include the requests from Vale and from the Canadian mining company Belo Sun’s project in Pará.

A very distant second is tin, accounting for 7% of the requests, followed by titanium (4%), copper (3.2%) and tantalum (2.6%).

Translated and released by Mongabay.

This article was originally published in Observatório da Mineração on Jan. 21, 2020. 

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