In the MRN office, Vladimir Moreira lists the socio-environmental measures taken by the company to mitigate the mine’s impacts. These include income generation schemes and better health and education services. “Perhaps the thing I’m proudest of is the fact that children from the quilombola communities go to the same school as the children of mine employees,” he says. It makes a big beneficial difference, he adds, as the quilombola communities don’t have secondary schools.
But many locals attending the mine’s school are ambivalent. Carlene Printes, now at university in Belém, says her earlier school years were “the most difficult period in my life.” Printes was the target of racist jokes as adolescents whose parents worked for the mine scoffed at the shape of her nose and kinky hair. “What was most painful of all was that the teachers and coordinators made out that I was making a fuss about nothing. Nobody did anything.”
“Today, I wonder if the price we paid for this quality education was too great,” she says. “I don’t know how to fish. I’m 31 years old and, if you gave me a fishing rod, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I don’t know how to grow vegetables or hunt because the company took all this away from us. And we don’t have enough land to do any of this, in any case.”
And what of the future?
As many in the community depend today on jobs linked to MRN, the anthropologist Lúcia Andrade, from the Comissão Pro-Índio, is worried about what will happen when the mineral reserves run out. “MRN is [presently] carrying out a series of socio-environmental programs with the [local] population but, until now, I don’t see a consistent discussion or measures that answer this question: what will the future of the community be like when these jobs disappear?”
It may be some time before that happens. According to MRN, existing mines won’t be exhausted until 2025, at which point five more already licensed bauxite sites can take over, producing for two decades; after which other new areas could be opened. Though all of this optimism hinges on a global community hungry for aluminum, demand that could steeply decline if COVID-19 triggers a global economic depression.
Whatever happens, the mining company seems unlikely to have it all its own way. In recent years, local communities have won some rights. For instance, Brazil signed the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, which requires “prior, free and informed” consultation with indigenous and traditional communities likely to suffer a major impact from a big new infrastructure project — though Brazil reportedly sidestepped this agreement for the Belo Monte mega-dam and other projects.
Boa Vista was also the first quilombola community in the country to obtain a collective land title, a right established by the progressive 1988 Constitution. Today, five quilombola territories in Oriximiná municipality have won definitive land rights, and others are fighting for recognition. However, many experts are concerned over possible setbacks by the Jair Bolsonaro government.
The quilombola story is remarkable: starting in the middle of the 18th century, runaway slaves began settling along the Trombetas River as part of a region-wide movement that was fracturing the slave-based structure in Pará state.
“My grandparents and great-grandparents were slaves,” says José dos Santos. “They fled from plantations in Santarém [an Amazon River port] and came up the Trombetas River to hide.” According to historian Eurípedes Funes, the runaways began to feel safe once they crossed a stretch of river known for its impassable rapids, which acted as a natural barrier to the punitive expeditions sent to recapture them.
Although there were conflicts, former slaves learned to coexist with indigenous groups, the region’s original inhabitants, acquiring from them essential knowledge about living in the forest and utilizing natural wealth to live sustainably.
Even before slavery ended in 1888, the runaways’ descendants began moving downstream to more navigable stretches of the river. Still, life remained far from easy, particularly during the military dictatorship (1964-1985) when the government encouraged mining companies, like MRN, to move in. The quilombos were simply ignored and community lands taken over.
Lapses in energy and sanitation
Today, Porto Trombetas and Boa Vista are two very different worlds. The company town has electric lights, supermarkets, banks, schools that teach English, restaurants, clubs, gyms and an airport. A half mile away, Boa Vista is made up of rough wooden houses often crammed together and built beside dirt tracks; the village lacks basic sanitation. Running water was only installed last year.
Mongabay’s two-hour interview with coordinator dos Santos was frequently interrupted by people complaining of no electricity because the community generator had broken down. “We’ve been suffering for 40 years and they still haven’t bothered to extend the electricity system from Porto Trombetas to here. And it’s so close,” he grumbled.
When questioned about this, mine spokesperson Moreira, said that the community complaints weren’t the mining company’s responsibility, but that of the municipal government. “The real question is: how do we get public powers involved? The mining company isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a substitute for the State,” he said. Mongabay tried repeatedly to talk to Oriximiná’s mayor, but he ignored our requests for comment.
In 2019, the municipality, which has 73,000 inhabitants, received almost R$37 million (US$6.5 million) in Financial Compensation for Mineral Resource Exploitation (CFEM), a tax mining companies pay to federal, state and municipal authorities. Even though Oriximiná has been receiving these payments since 1992, it continues to suffer from a low level of development, according to the last official census in 2010. While the nation had an average per capita income of US$435 then, people in Oriximiná earned an average of just US$186 — less than half Brazil’s average.
Waiting for the much-promised progress that never seems to arrive, Amarildo studies a huge ocean-going ore ship docked at the port, then comments sadly: “This development, we only see it pass by. It only goes to the company.”
On the verge of tears, he expresses his fears: “I look at my young son and I think, ‘soon I’ll pass on and what will you do with destroyed land and a destroyed river?’ It’s painful for me to see that the Boa Vista community hasn’t a lake where it can fish, nor land where it can hunt, and it’s being invaded on all sides by the company.”
Banner image: Local residents who live near once pristine, now heavily polluted, Batata Lake. Image by Thaís Borges.
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