Mining companies seek to expand into Brazil’s indigenous territories

The search for new mining areas is expanding into Brazil’s indigenous territories, amid rising mineral revenues and exports, as well as incentives from Jair Bolsonaro’s government, a new report has revealed.

In total, 570 mining companies and associations currently have 2,478 active applications filed for mineral research within 261 indigenous lands. They aim to exploit a total area of 10.1 million hectares, almost the size of England. The data, found in November 2021 in the National Mining Agency’s (ANM) own system, are contained in a new report, released on 22 February by the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) – the country’s largest network of indigenous organisations – and Amazon Watch, an international NGO.

“These applications represent a destruction, a genocide of indigenous peoples,” says Dinaman Tuxá, executive coordinator of APIB. “They represent the socio-environmental conflict that is now established.”

Exploitation in these areas is currently prohibited, but priority can still be guaranteed to companies in the eventuality of laws being approved that allow the advance of activity in indigenous lands. For example, the bill 191/2020, currently with Brazil’s congress, regulates mining and other activities in indigenous territories; and the bill 490/2007, now with the Supreme Federal Court, can change the established demarcation of indigenous lands.

The bills have support from Bolsonaro’s base and are seen by the mining sector as a way to free up exploration of inactive lands to help develop the country. Recently, the president also signed a decree to encourage small-scale mining in the Amazon, with the aim of generating income, according to the text, for “hundreds of thousands of people”.

“Mining is elevated to the status of an essential activity for the Brazilian economy, and this allows it to receive investments very easily,” says Rosana Miranda, a campaign advisor for Amazon Watch in Brazil.

For indigenous groups like APIB, however, they represent a failure by the Brazilian government to comply with the protection of native peoples, and with the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, which provides for the free, prior and informed consultation of indigenous communities affected by large enterprises.

“There is no concern to build, along with indigenous people, mechanisms that are less harmful to the extraction of these raw materials,” said Tuxá.

A spokesperson for ANM told Diálogo Chino that mining on indigenous lands depends on a decision by congress and that the agency only follows the laws and regulations in force.

The agency also stated that “no application for the execution of mineral activity succeeds in areas with legal blockage”, such as indigenous lands.

Contradictions of mining
Despite being responsible, according to a study from McKinsey Sustainability, for up to 28% of global indirect CO2 emissions, mining is treated tangentially in the global environmental agenda. Though fossil fuels make up a significant portion of global mining operations – with coal alone accounting for around 50% of the market and a large share of these emissions – mining still holds a relevant place in discussions of the global energy transition, since minerals such as lithium are essential to renewable energy technologies.

But despite new resources and technical improvements, mining has long been associated with accusations of human rights violations in Brazil, since the gold rush of the 17th century, and later at Serra Pelada, in the state of Pará, during the 1980s.

According to the report, the main targets of the application requests are the Xikrin indigenous lands of Cateté, whose ethnic group has already been almost decimated by the Serra Pelada mine’s operations, and the Waimiri Atroari territory, in Amazonas state. In addition to land invasion, mining activities have destroyed places considered sacred in these regions, affecting cosmologies and rites, the indigenous groups say.

Last year, the Taboca mining company, owned by the Peruvian group Minsur, dumped mining waste into rivers in the Waimiri Atroari territory. The Pitinga mine near the indigenous land produces tin – a mineral that is sent from Brazil to countries including the United States, Germany and the Netherlands. Although China is the largest consumer of the mineral, it is not on the list of importers of the Brazilian product, according to foreign trade data seen by Diálogo Chino.

Financiers of the mining giants
The report, which is now on its fourth edition, also analysed the financing of nine mining companies with significant operations in Brazil: AngloAmerican (UK), Belo Sun and Potássio do Brasil (Canada); Taboca and Mamoré, both owned by Minsur (Peru); Glencore (UK-Switzerland); AngloGold Ashanti (South Africa); Rio Tinto (UK-Australia); and Vale (Brazil).

Besides the operations already permitted in the country, these companies have 225 active mining applications in indigenous territories. Although Vale and AngloAmerican announced the cancellation of their applications last year, the report shows that new applications were made in October 2021.

These corporations have received inflows of US$54.1 billion (R$275 billion) over the past five years, taking into account the value of loans, underwritings, equity and bond investments. The main lenders are from the United States – Capital Group, BlackRock and Vanguard have invested a total of US$14.8 billion – and from Brazil itself, with pension fund Previ and Banco Bradesco investing US$11.8 billion over that period.

Large contributions also came from private groups from France, Germany, Japan, Canada and South Africa. Despite Chinese demand for iron ore being touted as one of the factors driving mining in 2021, no Chinese institution appears among the sector’s biggest lenders – even though Potássio do Brasil has signed a controversial contract with China’s CITIC bank to finance the “soy belt” in the Amazon.

Territories a target for illegal gold
In addition to interest in minerals for industrial use, indigenous lands are the target of predatory gold mining. In 2020, Brazil exported 110,000 tonnes of gold to countries such as Canada, Switzerland, Poland and the United Kingdom, with almost 20% of this gold being illegal, according to a study by the Instituto Escolhas.

Canadian companies have the largest stake in mining projects in the Amazon. For Rosana Miranda of Amazon Watch, the performance of Canadian companies in Brazil is a mirror for the financialisation of mining, in which the sector no longer meets real demands, but the financial market.

“These are companies that speculate on the possibility of exploring gold in the global south,” Miranda explains. “This is quite characteristic in Canada, where mining on indigenous land is allowed, and seen as an example for Brazil – despite having millions of problems.”

If realised, the current moves by Canadian company Belo Sun in the state of Pará will kick off the largest gold mining project in Latin America. Indigenous groups in the region where the mine is to be built, close to the Belo Monte hydroelectric power plant, are concerned about deforestation and the contamination of soils and waters by toxic substances.

Deforestation linked to mining in the Amazon, the report says, increased by 62% in 2021 compared to 2018, before Bolsonaro became president. Of the 225 mining applications made by the nine companies studied in the report, 143 are in territories in Pará – the leading state for deforestation in the biome, according to Imazon. This number has doubled in just six months: there were 67 active requests in July 2021.

This article was originally published on Diálogo Chino under the Creative Commons BY NC ND licence.

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    By: Dialogo Chino

    Diálogo Chino is the only independent journalism platform dedicated to better understanding the China-Latin America relationship and its sustainable development challenges.

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