17 July 2015
The company proposes to undertake mining operations in precisely the area that will be most impacted by the Belo Monte hydroelectric project. The Federal Public Prosecutor, the National Indian Foundation and the Federal University of Para met with the Yudja to discuss their right to be consulted.
The setting of Volta Grande (Big Bend in English) on the Xingu River in Altamira, in the state of Para, is a stunning maze of islands, beaches, rocks and virgin forest, especially now at the height of the Amazonian summer, when the river dries up and the temperatures rise above 35 degrees. What is not seen in the landscape – for now – is the uncertainly that hangs over the region with the installation of the Belo Monte hydroelectric plant. Also invisible to the naked eye is the dispute involving Belo Sun Mining Co., a Canadian company that belongs to the Forbes Manhattan group. Belo Sun’s gold exploration project would exacerbate the serious impacts of the hydroelectric plant and could affect its environmental feasibility.
The mine licencing process is carried out by the Para State Environmental Secretariat (Sema in Portuguese). Belo Sun obtained its Preliminary License despite several irregularities identified by the Federal Public Prosecutor, including a lack of clarity about cumulative impacts on the Volta Grande region. This is the region most seriously affected by Belo Monte. One hundred kilometres of the Xingu River will be diverted to drive the turbines of the hydroelectric plant, which could compromise surrounding ecosystems.
The Ministry of the Environment considers Volta Grande to be a region of great importance for biodiversity conservation, given its unique flora and fauna. With Belo Monte, the region will be subjected to conditions of water stress that could result in its extinction. The Brazilian Environment Institute (Ibama in Portuguese) and the National Water Agency (ANA) recognize the gravity of the situation in Volta Grande and have established a monitoring period of six years during which it may become necessary, for example, to reduce the amount of water that is diverted through the turbines in order to ensure the river’s survival.
Despite this high degree of uncertainty, the Para State Environmental Secretariat (Sema) ignored warnings from the Federal Public Prosecutor’s office and granted the mining license to Belo Sun. Sema also ignored the existence of indigenous communities who have lived for generations within the delicate and rich ecosystems of Volta Grande. Sema issued the license without requiring studies regarding the impact of the project on these communities. The National Indian Foundation (Funai in Portuguese) intervened in the process and determined the need for studies. But indigenous communities from Paquicamba Indigenous Land and the Arara from Volta Grande are demanding a consultation about the project before any further stages are reached in the mine licensing process.
On July 15 and 16, the residents of Paquicamba, of the Yudja ethnic group, also known as Juruna, met in the village of Miratu, on the edge of Volta Grande, to debate the situation and the double impact to which they could be subjected. In the presence of representatives from Funai, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s office and the Federal University of Para, they decided that, before any study is carried out about mining, they will demand that indigenous people finally be guaranteed their right to prior consultation. Although this right exists in Brazilian law, it has never been implemented with respect to Belo Monte. The Yudja began to elaborate a protocol for the consultation, following the examples of other peoples affected by big projects who are demanding this right, which has never been respected by the Brazilian state. They include the Munduruki of Para and the Wajapi of Amapa.
One of the concerns of the indigenous people and the National Indian Foundation is the risk of water contamination by Belo Sun Mining. The company’s proposal for industrial gold extraction will necessitate the removal of tonnes of earth and rock. For each tonne that is mined, one gram of gold will be extracted. The problem is that the process will expose the arsenic that’s contained in the rock. If there is leakage into the river, this could have fatal consequences for the indigenous communities that live next to the waters of the Xingu River. As much as 7 kilos of highly toxic arsenic will be freed in the process of extracting that same gram of gold.
Rodrigo Bulhoes, a technician with the General Licence Coordination office in the National Indian Foundation, which monitors the mine licensing process, cites the example of Kinross, another Canadian gold mining company with operations in Paracatu, in the state of Minas Gerais. Arsenic contamination from the Kinross mine provoked serious illnesses in the local population. Contamination (from Belo Sun’s operations) can result from the two waste heaps that the mine will produce. These heaps will be 75-85 metres high, equivalent to a building of 23-28 floors. They will be full of arsenic which, according to the project plan, will be contained in a tailings pond. If the mine proceeds, the pond will be located just 1200 metres from the course of the Xingu River.
For the National Indian Foundation, the uncertainty about the future of Volta Grande means that the studies carried out by Belo Sun cannot be taken as conclusive with respect to the impact on the river. The Foundation has therefore recommended to the Para State Environmental Secretariat that the project be delayed for six years, until the end of the monitoring period set by Ibama regarding Belo Monte. The Yudja say that before any study is undertaken, the Canadian company must carry out a consultation with them. “It is our future, our continued occupation of this land that is in question. We need to say what we think,” says Leiliane Pereira, a youth leader from the village of Miratu.
The Yudja are known as Juruna, a name that means black mouth, which was given to them by neighbouring indigenous peoples. Yudja signifies those who own the river, and is the name that they ask be used. In addition to the Yudja, the Belo Monte and Belo Sun projects will impact the Arara indigenous people of the Volta Grande and the indigenous population in the Ituna-Itata area, which lives in voluntary isolation with protection from the National Indian Foundation.
While there is uncertainty regarding the future of Volta Grande, there is pressure to implement Belo Sun’s project. At the request of the office of the Federal Public Prosecutor, a federal judge in Altamira annulled Belo Sun’s preliminary license in 2014. The Federal Prosecutor then lodged a second legal action demanding that the licensing process be carried out by the Brazilian Environment Institute (Ibama) (as opposed to authorities at the state level). In a preliminary decision, a federal judge determined that Ibama should intervene in all future licensing decisions. The company has appealed and awaits the decision of the Federal Regional Court of the 1st Region in Brasilia. In the meantime, the two decisions of the Federal Court in Altamira are suspended.
Source: Federal Public Prosecutor, Para, Brazil
The Brazilian office of the Public Prosecutor (Ministerio Público in Portuguese) is an independent body of public prosecutors. This ‘public ministry’ operates independently of the other branches of government, including the Ministry of Justice. Its mandate is to defend collective and individual rights, the legal system and democractic processes. The Public Prosecutor is tasked, among other things, with ensuring that public authorities and services are respectful of constitutionally-protected rights. The Public Prosecutor initiates legal inquiries and civil lawsuits to protect public and social interests, the environment, and other individual and collective rights. No such institution exists in Canada.