Bauxite mining harm vs. sustainable livelihoods
Located in Porto Trombetas, an hour downstream by boat, MRN has reportedly contributed to habitat disturbance along the Trombetas River, and is believed by researchers to be the main cause of turtle population declines there.
According to the REBIO Trombetas management plan published in 2004: “The constant presence of deep-draught ships to transport the bauxite, now totaling 300 a year, is changing the way sediments settle, for the ships’ heavy propellers disturb the bottom of the rivers and cause turbulence. This may be the main cause of the reduction in the population of the Podocnemis expansa turtle in the area.”
The company’s presence has also inadvertently altered traditional livelihoods. “People [living] near Porto Trombetas stopped planting crops and went to work for the mining company, or became maids in the company town. But they still need to feed their families,” said Cléia.
“Before the mining company arrived, we just hunted and fished to get food for ourselves,” added Barbosa. “But now people want to buy food from us.” Meeting that increased demand has put added pressure on local fisheries and wildlife, with the number of available fish and animals to hunt and catch declining.
While relations between Brazil’s environmental agencies and traditional people have improved as controls have been relaxed, some tensions remain. This is seen in the Saracá-Taquera National Forest (known today as a FLONA) on the right-hand bank of the Tapajós River, covers 429,000 hectares (951,356 acres). The FLONA encompasses MRN’s mining facilities and many local traditional communities. Although conflict has been much less than in the REBIO Trombetas, there has been friction.
Ten years after the creation of REBIO Trombetas, Brazilian President José Sarney flew over the region and saw that MRN was directly discharging waste from its huge bauxite mine into once pristine Batata Lake — a notorious Amazon environmental disaster. In response, the Brazilian government created the FLONA in 1989, another type of conservation unit — protected but where economic activities, including regulated mining, are permitted.
The decree setting up the FLONA recognized MRN’s right to mine there and established an annual company payment to the body administering the FLONA. In 2019, the company paid ICMBio about R$1.5 million ($288,000) under the agreement. In addition, before deforesting a new area, MRN makes a payment to ICMBio, based on a calculation of the value of the destroyed forest. In 2019, it paid ICMBio R$9 million ($1.7 million) before opening a new mine.
Despite these payments, Luiz Jardim, geography professor at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, who carries out research in the region, says the creation of the FLONA favored MRN’s long-term interests. It was, he explained, “a way of not only making it impossible for new mining companies to set up in the region, but also of controlling population flows around the mine.” The company gains other advantages, too, Jardim said: “The creation of the conservation unit allows the company to polish its green credentials and to hand over to the state the administration of the area.”
Traditional populations living within the FLONA say that they suffer disproportionately from environmental monitoring, while MRN is favored. For many years, Domingo Gomes, a peasant farmer living in the region went into the forest that now is part of the FLONA to hunt and collect forest products and plant subsistence crops. To his dismay, in 2011 he received a fine of R$108,000 ($21,000) for clearing 9 hectares (22 acres), an area regarded by the authorities as too large, even though Gomes was working with others as part of a community collective in the clearance for crops.
“How am I going to pay this?” he asked. “Do they think I’d be planting cassava in the forest, if I had this kind of money?” He added angrily that both IBAMA and ICMBio ignore the environmental impacts caused by MRN, while punishing locals for perceived infractions.
This isn’t entirely true. Until Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019 and declared war on the IBAMA’s “industry of fines,” the agency did impose fines for environmental crimes. In 2018, under Brazil’s Temer administration, MRN was fined nine times, for a total of R$17 million ($3.2 million). Three fines it was fined for polluting the air and water near its mines. MRN appealed.
Little hope of owning their traditional lands
The government’s declaration of the FLONA was a severe blow to the communities who had hoped to register the land they occupied as theirs, especially because this ownership right had been granted just a year earlier in 1988, enshrined within the nation’s new, progressive Constitution.
Vladimir Moreira, director of sustainability at MRN, recognizes this contradictory problem: “If the FLONA didn’t exist, it’s very likely that the quilombola communities would have been given the right to their land,” he said. “But for the quilombolas to gain the collective right to their land, the conservation unit [the FLONA] would have to be revoked by the National Congress.” This is the final (but difficult) obstacle that the communities in the Alto Trombetas 1 and 2 territories — who had their rights to the land recognized in reports published by the National Institute of Colonization and Land Reform (INCRA) in 2017 — face to get control of their land.
Meanwhile, MRN continues benefiting from the status quo. If the quilombolas won land rights, the company would not only have to pay the government the CFEM tax (Financial Compensation for the Exploitation of Mining Resources), charged at the rate of 3% of turnover, but also make another payment of 1.5% of turnover to the association representing the quilombo on whose land a mine is operating.
Despite that, Moreira says that the mining company supports the quilombolas’ ongoing struggle to obtain their land rights. This is very unlikely to happen, particularly with the current hostility to quilombolas expressed by Bolsonaro and Congress.
The interplay of overlapping and conflicting interests — those of the mining company, of environmental agencies and traditional communities — is complex and difficult to sort out, everyone agrees.
But James Fraser, a lecturer in anthropology at Lancaster University in the UK, sees a clear hierarchy in how the federal government deals with the various actors: “In the conservation model adopted along the Trombetas River (FLONA and REBIO), the huge impacts of mineral exploitation are more acceptable to the Brazilian State and its environmental agencies than the presence of traditional communities,” he says. “Despite the fact that these communities manage forests and lakes in a sustainable way, forest people are falsely depicted as destructive of the environment, as a way of hiding those really responsible for damaging the rivers and forests: large corporations.”
Banner Image: REBIO communities help guide turtle hatchlings into the river. The assistance of traditional communities has been vital to the success of the turtle conservation program. Image courtesy of ICMBio.
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