Potash mine plan hits a nerve in Amazon


As this welcome sign attests, Autazes municipal authorities do not share indigenous communities’ serious concerns about plans for a major mining project nearby. The sign reads: "Welcome to Autazes, Land of Milk and Potash." (Photo by Thaís Borges)

As Brazil’s right-wing government presses for mining in Amazon-region indigenous reserves, a years-long battle over plans for a huge potash mine near two such reserves offers a preview of the pushback likely to come.

The mine, proposed by Potássio do Brasil, a subsidiary of the Canadian conglomerate Forbes & Manhattan, would be dug near two indigenous Mura reserves in the Amazonas state municipality of Autazes, 70 miles (112 kms) east of Manaus. The project has been held up since the Mura forced suspension of exploratory drilling in 2016 by threatening to set fire to the mining company’s equipment.

The Mura later enlisted the help of Brazil’s Public Ministry, a federal watchdog, which in March of last year reached a court-approved agreement with the company guaranteeing nearby indigenous communities “free, prior and informed consultation” before the project can be approved. Under International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169, which Brazil signed and ratified, governments must ensure indigenous and tribal peoples are consulted and included in decision-making that concerns development projects that might affect them.

In line with the legal agreement, Potássio do Brasil has been carrying out such a consultation of the Mura since November, using a protocol developed by the Mura and accepted by the company. The protocol requires the Mura receive comprehensive information on the project, as well as access to independent experts to help them interpret it—a process expected to take six months. As the consultation progresses, the Mura will take successive soundings of community opinion with the objective of reaching a consensus.

Legal experts disagree on whether Convention No. 169 gives indigenous communities veto power over extractive projects. Neither the government nor the company has said what it will do if the Mura reject the mining plan. But if the Mura come out against the project, they will likely find themselves in conflict with the Bolsonaro administration and its plans to facilitate mineral extraction, agribusiness and other land-altering economic activities in and around indigenous reserves.

Well before he took office in January 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro advocated large-scale mining inside indigenous reserves, and in March of last year his administration announced it was drafting legislation to smooth the way. Experts say indigenous reserves rank among the best-conserved areas of the Amazon because of Indians’ low-impact use of the land, but Bolsonaro argues Brazil is squandering economic opportunity by reserving such large areas for indigenous people and their traditional ways.

Though Potássio do Brasil’s plan predates Bolsonaro’s rise to power, it epitomizes the type of extractive project his administration seeks to promote in the Amazon—in this case because it would help fuel soybean production, a mainstay of Brazilian agribusiness. Potash is a key ingredient in the manufacture of fertilizers used in the cultivation of soy and other export crops. Cinthia Rodrigues, manager of research and development at the Brazilian Mining Institute (Ibram), says Brazil currently imports over 90% of the potash it uses. “Once the project in Autazes is operating, it could supply about 50% of national demand,” she says.

Proponents also cite the Autazes potash deposit’s proximity to the Madeira River. The Madeira is used to transport soybeans from Brazil’s largest soy-producing state, Mato Grosso, to the Amazon River ports of Itacoatiara and Santarém, where they are placed on transatlantic vessels for shipment to China and Europe. “Instead of traveling empty back up the Madeira River [to Rondônia, where there are good road links to Mato Grosso], as happens today, the barges could go stacked full of potash,” explains Guilherme Jácome, project development director at Potássio do Brasil. This would greatly reduce transportation costs and make the potash competitive with the imported product, he says.

Geologists discovered the potash deposit in 2010, about 10 kilometers (6.4 miles) from the Paracuhuba Indigenous Reserve and eight kilometers (4.2 miles) from the Jauary Indigenous Reserve, both of which have been demarcated. The deposit underlies land that is the subject of pending demarcation requests by two other indigenous communities: Urucurituba village, ten kilometers (6.4 miles) away, and Soares village, just two kilometers (1.4 miles) away.

Soon after finding the potash, Potássio do Brasil in September 2010 proposed an enormous mining project with the endorsement of state and municipal authorities. The US$2.5 billion mine would comprise a pair of shafts, each one seven to eight meters (23 to 26 feet) across, leading to deposits 800 meters (2,600 feet) underground. The company quickly obtained a license from the National Department of Mining Research (DNPM), now renamed the National Mining Agency (ANM), to drill exploratory wells, and in 2013 it began that work, with production slated for 2016. Previously, the company had prepared an environmental-impact study, which forecast wide-ranging impacts including increased pressure on public health services as well as land-use changes that could alter the reference points in the Indians’ social and cultural world.

A key concern is waste generated during processing of the ore from which potash will be produced—sylvinite, a sedimentary rock comprising potassium chloride and sodium chloride. “In the process of separating out the potash, you need to dissolve this salt,” explains Juan Doblas, a geologist and geoprocessing consultant. “The problem is that this results in a huge quantity of concentrated brine, which can do immense environmental damage in a region like Amazonia.”

The company insists measures will be taken to prevent the salt from leaching into the soil and water sources. But the Mura worry such pollution could occur regardless, given the region’s heavy rainfall and extensive annual flooding, as well as the mine’s location in a floodplain.

Many Mura are well aware of the dangers of big mining projects. They cite the loss of life and severe environmental damage caused by the collapse in recent years of iron-ore mine tailings dams in Minas de Gerais state. (See "Fatal deluge signals wider tailings-dam safety risk" —EcoAméricas, January 2019) and (See "New accident clouds tailings dam safety efforts in Brazil" —EcoAméricas, October 2019.)
Though the potash mine would not involve a tailings dam, the Mura say the Minas Gerais disasters illustrate the mining industry’s poor safety record and lax government oversight.

“We’ve seen dams breaking and doing a great deal of harm to the people living by them,” says Francisco Oliveira, the tuxaua, or chief, of Taquara, one of the villages taking part in the consultation. “People don’t feel safe and they don’t get help.”

Independently of the consultation process, the company has held two public hearings on the project, as required by law. Few indigenous community members attended—in the case of one, held in Autazes, because of the distance involved, and in the case of the other, in the village of Urucurituba, because of concern the session would be one-sided, the Mura say. Aldinélson Moraes Pavão, tuxaua of Urucurituba, says that concern proved correct. “At the public hearing [company representatives] only spoke about what was going to be good for the community,” he says. “They said nothing about the negative impacts.”

Experts say negative impacts can be felt well before soil is moved. Bringing thousands of workers to the mining site can threaten local communities with infectious disease and social ills ranging from drug use to prostitution, says Fernanda Bragato, a lecturer in law in Unisinos, a university in the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande. Bragato contributed to a study on the mine’s potential risks, a Ford Foundation-funded exercise conducted in partnership with five other researchers including Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum, a lecturer at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law in New York.

According to the 2018 study, soil subsidence caused by mining can occur decades or even centuries after the closure of a potash mine. There have been cases around the world of potash mines collapsing and leaving craters. In 2014, a potash mine collapse in the Perm region of Russia’s Ural Mountains created a sinkhole 122 by 125 meters (400 by 410 feet) across and 75-meters (246-feet) deep.

Though plans for the Autazes mine were announced in 2010, Mura community members say their concern about the project only became acute in 2013, when Potássio do Brasil began conducting exploratory boring on land they have long considered theirs. Many Mura were outraged that the company had started work without getting their permission. “I am 47 years old,” says Pavão. “I was born here and brought up here. My parents and grandparents too. So I won’t be told by Potássio do Brasil, which comes from outside, that this land isn’t ours. It is our land and they are the invaders.”

Gilmara Lelis, tuxaua of Sampaio village, which will not be directly affected by the mine, says Mura from throughout the region rushed to help. “We are all one people,” she says. “If they interfere with one village, they’re interfering with all of us.”

Potássio do Brasil, however, questions the Mura’s right to stop its project. The company only recognizes indigenous land areas that have been demarcated—not those areas of traditional Mura land where the tribe’s demarcation requests are pending. Says Jácome: “All of the mine and the area where potash ore will be extracted lies outside indigenous land.”

Many legal experts disagree, among them Carlos Marés, a former president of the National Indian Foundation (Funai), the federal agency that oversees policy regarding indigenous peoples. One of Brazil’s leading authorities on indigenous rights, Marés points out that Brazil’s progressive 1988 Constitution upholds the original right of indigenous people. This, he says, gives them an inalienable right to the lands that they permanently inhabit and which are necessary for their physical and cultural reproduction. “Indigenous land is indigenous, whether or not it has been demarcated, which is after all only an administrative act of marking out the limits,” Marés says.

But for now, attention is focused on the consultation. That process began in November with information-gathering and analysis of the project’s pluses and minuses, an exercise being led by Potássio do Brasil staff and outside specialists called in by the Mura. Under the protocol agreed last year, only Mura living in the demarcated and non-demarcated villages of the municipality of Autazes can take part. Reflecting the decision-making process their governing assemblies have used for centuries, the Mura will gauge community opinion repeatedly as discussions progress. The goal, ultimately, is to reach a “consensus” view supported by at least three-fourths of eligible community members.

Jácome says his company’s project has the strong backing of non-indigenous Autazes residents ranging from ranchers to tradesmen, mainly on account of the mine’s expected economic benefits. He forecasts the Mura will wind up supporting it, too. “We believe that once they know the project and the plans and programs that have been drawn up for the Indians, the Mura people will accept the project,” he says.

Job expectations
Says Autazes Mayor Andreson Cavalcante, a strong supporter of the project who comes from a European-descended ranching family: “The company tells us that during the eight-year implementation period, the project will create 1,500 direct jobs, along with 5,000 indirect jobs.” Before the project was blocked, he adds, it had substantially boosted the local economy, increasing commerce and creating jobs.

Some Indians speak favorably about possible job creation, but they also express reservations about other aspects of the project and say they have not decided how they will vote. Critics of the project say serious socioeconomic pressures afflicting the Mura have grown worse due to Indian-services budget cuts by the Bolsonaro administration. Against that backdrop, they say, promises by project organizers to invest in public health and education could drive many Indians to vote in favor of the project.

But some indigenous leaders remain opposed. Wearing his parrot-feather headdress, Yuaka Mura, a coordinator for Mura Indigenous Culture, a militant indigenous movement, declared emphatically: “We don’t want mining on our land. We have seen the cost of mining in other parts of Brazil. It doesn’t have a future.”

Others appear less definitive. “The good part is that it will bring jobs”, says Oliveira, the Taquara tuxaua. “The bad part is the impact it will have on the environment and on our people, because a lot of outsiders will be coming in who can bring in illness and prostitution.”

Bruno Caporrino, an anthropologist who advised the Mura on the consultation protocol, says the process allows them to set conditions for their approval. For example, the community might support the project only if more of their ancestral land is demarcated by the government.

The government would face legal hurdles if it tried to impose mining without indigenous support. It has to reckon not only with ILO Convention No. 169 but also Article 231 of Brazil’s Constitution. The article states: “Indians have the right to permanent occupation of their traditional land and to enjoy the exclusive use of the wealth in the soil, rivers and lakes.” It describes indigenous land rights as “inalienable.”

Issue of consent
The Public Ministry stated flatly in December 2016 that the government cannot license the potash mine without indigenous consent. Such legal interpretations might help explain why the government has yet to unveil legislation permitting mining on indigenous land, ten months after announcing it would do so.

Yet pressure for conventional extractive projects in the Amazon region is building. According to the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), a leading Brazilian environmental organization, companies have registered 3,347 requests for mining rights in seven Amazonian states. And authorities clearly are reluctant to give indigenous communities the last word on such projects. When Bolsonaro’s Minister of Mines and Energy, Admiral Bento Albuquerque, announced plans last March to permit mining on indigenous lands, he said: “…[I]ndigenous people will be heard, but they will not have the autonomy to veto the installation of a mine.”

If the Mura support the mine, even with conditions, serious political conflict with the federal government will likely be avoided, experts say—that despite the fact many Mura fear the project will cause harmful long-term environmental and social impacts. But analysts say that if the Mura reject the project and the mine is green-lighted anyway, the odds of a confrontation with the Bolsonaro administration would be high. Says Marés, the former Funai president: “If the government decides to push [the mine project] ahead without indigenous agreement, it will have to use an iron fist.”

- Thais Borges, Sue Branford and Maurício Torres

In the index photo: Yuaka Mura, a coordinator of the movement Mura Indigenous Culture, strongly opposes the planned potash mine. (Photo by Maurício Torres)

Fernanda Bragato
Lecturer in Law
Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos (Unisinos)
São Leopoldo, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
Tel: +(55 51) 3590-8148
Andreson Cavalcante
Mayor of Autazes
Autazes, Amazonas, Brazil
Tel: +(55 92) 3317-1247
Guilherme Jácome
Project Development Director
Potássio do Brasil
Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Tel: +(55 31) 3505-5200
Yuaka Mura
Mura Indigenous Council (CIM)
Autazes, Amazonas, Brazil
Tel: +(55 92) 3317-1692
Cinthia Rodrigues
Brazilian Mining Institute
Research and Development
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 3364-7272