Ribeirinho woman washes clothes while her children play. She and other residents report that exposure to local waters sometimes causes itching and diarrhea. (Photo by Thaís Borges)
In July of last year, residents of four river communities in Oriximiná, a municipality in the Brazilian Amazon state of Pará, were surprised one day to hear heavy machinery operating in the forest. The ribeirinhos, as Brazil’s traditional riverbank dwellers are known, soon linked the noise to a reduction in the number of forest animals and a change in the color of the water in nearby creeks. “We became frightened to drink the water,” says Jesi Ferreira, a resident of the hamlet of São Francisco. “It used to be transparent, but it went yellow—then even red—after a few days.”
The cause, they learned, was Mineração Rio do Norte (MRN), the world’s fourth largest producer of bauxite, a key ingredient in the production of aluminum. The mining company, which has been operating in western Pará since the 1970s, had obtained a license to open a new mine, called Aramã, in December 2018. It began work in July 2019, less than ten miles from São Francisco and three other ribeirinho communities—São Tomé, São Sebastião and Espírito Santo. Since then, local residents no longer have had access to the area, where they had customarily hunted and collected Brazil nuts.
Human rights and environmental advocates cite the Aramã project as one of the latest examples of outside economic interests dispossessing Amazon forest people of their traditional territory in the name of development. But they argue it also illustrates the particular vulnerability of ribeirinhos and the disrespect with which Brazil regards International Labor Organization Convention 169 (ILO 169), a treaty it ratified in 2004. The treaty gives so-called “tribal people,” known in Brazil as traditional populations and widely considered to include the ribeirinhos, the right to be consulted about development projects that could affect their way of life. “We weren’t consulted when they began opening the mine,” says Ferreira. “They should have come and talked to us, shouldn’t they, so that we knew what they were going to do to get the ore out?”
MRN contends that the right of prior consultation does not extend to ribeirinhos, according to Vladimir Moreira, the company’s director of sustainability. In doing so, MRN appears to be exploiting a lack of Brazilian legal protections for ribeirinhos, the mestizo descendants of indigenous people and rubber tappers who migrated to the Amazon from northeast Brazil in the late 19th century. Indeed, only two traditional peoples are expressly mentioned in the current Brazilian Constitution and in a regulation—Interministerial Ordinance 60—that helps guide environmental permitting by Ibama, the licensing and enforcement arm of the Brazilian Environment Ministry. Those two groups are indigenous peoples and quilombolas—Afro-Brazilian descendants of runaway slaves.
But while ribeirinhos are only acknowledged in a few Brazilian laws, some experts say they nevertheless clearly fall within the definition of the “indigenous and tribal peoples” that must receive prior consent under ILO 169. Carlos Marés, a jurist who formerly headed Funai, the Brazilian agency that oversees policies concerning indigenous communities, cites ILO 169’s relevant wording. The treaty, he notes, states that it applies to tribal peoples “whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions.” Ribeirinhos amply fit that description, Marés says. Further, he argues, Brazil’s obligations under ILO 169 cannot be trumped by national law.
“A national state cannot invoke its domestic law to justify the breach of an international treaty,” says Marés, also a former attorney general of the state of Paraná. “The application [of Convention 169] cannot be removed by any law … Stated more clearly, the treaties which Brazil has signed cannot be disregarded domestically, especially if they deal with human rights.”
In avoiding prior consultation with the ribeirinhos on Aramã, MRN has had a willing ally in the Brazilian government. Ibama, the environmental permitting agency, licensed the open-pit project without insisting on community consultation and without the ribeirinhos’ knowledge in December 2018, just before President Jair Bolsonaro took office. The right-wing Bolsonaro administration has allowed MRN to press ahead with the mine despite the pandemic, providing a government determination in March that mining is an “essential activity.” According to satellite images obtained by the Pro-Indian Commission of São Paulo, a nonprofit that supports traditional communities, work at the Aramã site has continued this year, with bauxite mining and expansion of the mine into newly deforested areas occurring simultaneously.
Ribeirinhos have attempted to engage with MRN. In December of 2019, leaders of ribeirinho communities met with MRN executives in the presence of Pro-Indian Commission President Lúcia Andrade in Santarém, and asked that work on the project be stopped until the mine’s impact on their communities could be properly assessed. MRN refused, but said it would take mitigation steps and provide socio-economic programs similar to those it has undertaken in connection with other Oriximiná mines near quilombola and ribeirinho communities.
Ribeirinhos are unhappy with these assurances. “They want to standardize the offsets, as if the impacts are always the same,” asserts Evanilson Figueiredo, president of the Association of Communities in the Trombetas Area and Sapucuá (Acomtags).
As part of the licensing process, the company did complete an environmental-impact study for the Aramã project. But critics say the study failed to acknowledge ribeirinho communities’ use of the land, much less the potential impacts on local water quality. According to the Pro-Indian Commission’s Andrade, an anthropologist, an essential first step is to study in detail what negative impacts are already occurring as a result of the new mine and what further harm could be done to the forests and streams that the ribeirinhos use. “Only after understanding how this [mine] could affect the subsistence and way of life of the communities will it be possible to define what mitigation and compensatory measures are needed,” she says.
The four ribeirinho communities near the Aramã site have asked the Santarém office of the Federal Public Ministry, an agency of independent public prosecutors, to file suit on their behalf. They seek suspension of MRN’s operating license for the mine until three conditions are met: MRN has carried out a “free, prior and informed consultation” with them; an independent technical study has been conducted on the likely impacts of the mine; and a mitigation and compensation plan has been negotiated between MRN and ribeirinho communities.
According to residents of communities elsewhere in Oriximiná, the losses and harm from MRN operations could be considerable. MRN has a history in Oriximiná, a sprawling municipality of 41,546 square miles (107,603 square kilometers) where all of the company’s current bauxite mining operations are located. It opened the first mine in 1979, and eventually developed seven more along with a company town, Porto Trombetas, complete with street lights, banks, gyms, a hospital and an airport. The development contrasts sharply with centuries-old subsistence communities of indigenous, quilombola and ribeirinho peoples in the nearby rainforest, many of which still lack electricity and septic systems. Aramã is one of 14 new mines in all that the company has said it aims to develop in Oriximiná and the neighboring municipalities of Terra Santa and Faro.
Water quality concerns
People in Boa Nova and Saracá, communities not far from the four most directly affected by Aramã, say that four decades ago they lived in a paradise of crystal-clear lakes and streams. “It was beautiful here and there were a lot of fish,” recalls 73-year-old Raimundo da Silva, known as Daca, a resident of Saracá. But then MRN began mining in 1979, compromising water quality of local creeks and consuming forestland where residents of the two communities hunted and collected chestnuts. A major expansion of those operations—development of the Almeidas mine in 2002—destroyed forestland that provided 70% of the two communities’ Brazil-nut supply and further worsened water quality, residents say, causing diarrhea and other illness among children.
The company eventually agreed to dig wells that serve Boa Nova and Saracá today, but some residents continue to worry about water quality. “When company employees visit us, they bring mineral water for themselves,” says Fátima Viana Lopes, a Boa Nova community leader. “Why won’t they drink our water if, as they say, the quality of our water is good?”
MRN’s Moreira counters that throughout the year, the company analyzes hundreds of water samples taken from the area, and has found that, despite the water’s reddish color and murkiness, its quality is within Brazil’s legal limits. But Marcelo Lima of the Evandro Chagas Institute, a research body linked to the national Health Ministry, has concerns. “The murkiness means that there is a lot of bauxite particles in the water,” says Lima, who does water analysis in rivers affected by mining. “And in the geological origin of this substance, there are toxic elements like lead, copper, arsenic and mercury.”
The Pro-Indian Commission’s Andrade says special water quality standards should be adopted for the Amazon region. “It is one thing to consider water [in urban centers] that will be treated before it is consumed as adequate,” she says. “It’s another thing to use these same standards for water that is going to be consumed directly from the stream.”
When it first began mining in Oriximiná in 1979, MRN discharged its tailings directly into Batata Lake, located near the Trombetas River. Once a beautiful water body whose tropical flowers became world-renowned through the paintings of the British artist Margaret Mee, the lake served as a source of fish for several ribeirinho and quilombola communities. The discharges carried on for ten years, depositing an estimated 24 million tons of orange sludge in the lake.
“It is the worst industrial accident ever to have happened in Amazonia,” says the geographer Luiz Jardim, lecturer in geography at the Federal University of Fluminense, who conducted research in the region for 15 years.
In 1989, after pollution of the lake began attracting international attention, MRN built its first tailings dam and the direct discharges stopped. MRN says the lake is recovering, but local residents claim the improvement has been partial at best. Even today, it is possible to see orange sludge at the bottom of the lake during the dry season. “You can see caimans and turtles stuck in the mud,” says Isaías Oliveira, a local resident. “They can’t get out and they die there.”
Protected area conundrum
The federal government responded to public pressure by creating a protected area in 1989—the 429,000-hectare (1.1-million-acre) Saracá-Taquera National Forest (Flona)—bordering the Trombetas River, but MRN was allowed to continue mining on the land. The government action effectively gave MRN exclusive access to the area’s mineral resources, Jardim notes, because the national-forest status blocked competitors from starting mine operations there. It also prevented ribeirinho and quilombola communities within the protected area from obtaining legal title to land they’ve long occupied, removing another potential challenge to MRN operations. Says Jardim: “The creation of protected land has been a strategy encouraged by MRN to favor its activities in the long term.”
Quilombolas as well as ribeirinhos are affected by the bauxite mining, but it is the ribeirinhos who have found it most difficult to obtain land titles, partly because their rights to landholding isn’t explicitly enshrined in the 1988 Constitution. Not until 2010 did ribeirinho families of Oriximiná manage to have an agro-extractive reserve created for them—a government-sanctioned conservation area in which communities are allowed to engage in forest friendly economic activities. Called the Sapucuá-Trombetas Agro-Extractive Project, the reserve covers 67,749 hectares (167,411 acres) and is home to 810 families. Areas within the national forest where the communities collect most of their forest products were not included in the settlement, however.
Hugo Gravina, who mapped the area used by the ribeirinhos of Boa Nova and Saracá as part of his master’s research at the Federal University of Western Pará, says the ribeirinhos have been treated poorly. “They were expropriated for the first time when the [national forest] was created on their land,” then for a second time when mines were dug on land they depended on, he says.
To mitigate the considerable economic impact, MRN set up a program in which seeds collected by ribeirinhos were purchased and used in the reforestation of former mining sites. The program is not popular among ribeirinhos. “It’s dangerous, because you don’t have safety equipment, you’re picking up seeds on the ground, and you can easily be bitten by a poisonous animal,” says Jones da Luz, a Boa Nova community resident. “All this to earn just over 300 reais (US$60) a month!”
Domingos Rabelo, a community leader, is also critical of the seed collection program. “If the mining company gave us the true value of the Brazil nuts we have lost, that would be compensation,” he says. “But collecting seeds and selling them for next to nothing?” He says that this is the kind of compensation that the company is proposing for the ribeirinhos who will be affected by the Aramã project.
MRN plans to push ahead with the opening of new mines inside the national forest. But the ribeirinhos, along with other traditional communities in the region, vow they will fight back. Says Domingos Rabelo: “Today we have information, and we are not just going to accept the losses while the company takes all the wealth away.”
- Thais Borges and Sue Branford
In the Index: A 2016 aerial view of sludge in once-clear Batata Lake. (Photo by Carlos Penteado)