Historically, mining has been an industry on the back of which empires are forged. Instrumental in the colonial expansion of the European continent, the extraction of gold from the Americas provided the capital needed to facilitate the notion of Manifest Destiny, the 19th century belief that white settlers were fated to expand their colonisation across what is now the US. And while that age of empires has declined or died entirely, depending on who you ask, the mining industry still plays a vital part in growing developing countries’ economic strength, and in multinational interests’ further dominance of an increasingly globalised economy.

Perhaps nowhere encapsulates this neo-colonial conflict more than Brazil. Governed by the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil holds 60% of the globally important and ecologically sensitive Amazon rainforest and more than 300 indigenous groups within its borders. Bolsonaro’s administration has affirmed its commitment to growing Brazil’s economy through increased mineral exploration and foreign investment in mining projects. Legislation was proposed by Bolsonaro in February 2020 with the aim of opening Indigenous lands to mineral exploration, and further moves to increase mining activity in the country by rolling back environmental regulations and Indigenous protections have drawn local and national opposition, as well as international condemnation.

Brazil’s ambition for mining growth

Brazil is already host to a strong mining industry – the country is second only to Australia in iron ore production and also holds rich reserves of nickel, bauxite, and other metals. In 2018, the mining and metallurgy sector accounted for more than 2.4% of Brazil’s GDP. 

Federal efforts to stimulate mining industry growth and attract new investment have often been presented as cutting red tape and streamlining the process for projects to get off the ground. 

“The regulation, control, and supervision of the activities of the [mining] sector is carried out by the National Mining Agency (ANM), which is conducting a process of debureaucratisation and reduction of the regulatory burden, to simplify the processes and reduce the grant deadlines,” says Alexandre Vidigal, the secretary of geology and mining at the Brazilian Ministry of Mines and Energy.

This process of reducing bureaucracy has been criticised both in Brazil and elsewhere, widely viewed as a euphemism for rolling back regulations designed to protect the Amazon rainforest and the indigenous peoples of Brazil while allowing multinational miners unfettered access to these culturally and ecologically sensitive lands. 

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Reuters reported that deforestation in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon rose 55% in the first four months of 2020 compared to the year prior, with environmental organisations attributing the rise to Bolsonaro’s emboldening of illegal loggers, miners, and ranchers. While the Brazilian president lauds the opportunities presented to Brazil by opening indigenous lands to mining, indigenous peoples have called this “a project of death”. Despite the opposition, the Brazilian Government is determined to continue.

“The current government has a very well defined and clear agenda for the country’s mining, with the objective of transforming mineral heritage into wealth and achieving the quantitative and qualitative growth of Brazilian mining,” Vidigal says. “That is, a growth of mineral production with responsibility, attentive to the best practices of sustainability, governance and management… 

“With its vast territory, recognized geological potential, skilled labour and large investments in infrastructure and regulatory stability, Brazil has moved to a new phase in the performance of mineral activity, seeking to develop mining to develop the country.”

Vidigal says that current projects being researched focus on several strategic minerals in the country, including potassium for the manufacture of fertilisers as well as critical materials for batteries and renewable energy technologies such as copper, nickel, lithium, and graphite. The country has aimed to court international interest in its mining opportunities and last year the Geological Survey of Brazil launched maps of mineral prospectivity in the country at PDAC 2020, one of the largest international mining conventions.

Environmental concerns and a lack of confidence in the industry

Opposition to the expansion of mining activities pursued by Brazil has come from both inside and outside the country and, notably, some of the fiercest international outcry predates Bolsonaro’s election as president. His predecessor, Michel Temer, abolished a conservation area larger than Denmark so that it’s potentially rich mineral deposits could be exploited. 

The reserve, Renca, was established in 1984 by presidential decree and can therefore be abolished without congressional approval. Temer abolished the reserve in 2017 but was forced to reinstate it a month later following international backlash, with NGOs and other environmentalist groups warning that the abolition would lead to a spike in deforestation.

Bolsonaro has, however, alluded to revisiting the abolition of Renca. Reuters reported in 2019 that, speaking at an event inside the reserve, President Bolsonaro said: “Let’s use the riches that God gave us for the wellbeing of our population. You won’t get any trouble from the Environment Ministry, nor the Mines and Energy Ministry nor any other.” 

There are concerns that Bolsonaro’s famous disdain for environmentalists could mean he is less swayed by public outrage in the event he opens Renca to mineral exploration.

There are also concerns over Brazil’s ability to adequately safeguard its minerals sector, owing to a recent history of dam collapses that have undermined confidence in the industry. 

“The collapse of Vale’s Mariana and Brumadinho tailings dams in Minas Gerais are evidence of an uncontrolled mining sector,” Ana Paula Vargas, Brazil program manager at nonprofit organisation Amazon Watch, says. 

The Mariana dam disaster occurred in November 2015 when the Fundão tailings dam near the city of Mariana failed, flooding downstream villages and killing 19 people. Brazilian mining company Vale, co-owner of the site, promised such an incident would never happen again and it would improve safety at its other dams. But in January 2019, it did happen again – and worse. The Brumadinho dam disaster killed 270 people, most of whom were Vale employees.

Indigenous peoples, aside from the myriad cultural and economic reasons for their opposition to allowing miners unfettered access to their lands, are similarly concerned about mining safety issues, according to Brazilian NGO Instituto Socioambiental anthropologist Tiago Moreira. 

He says: “Besides not being consulted, indigenous people are worried about the environmental impacts of the mining activities. The mining industry is responsible for two of the biggest environmental disasters that have occurred in Brazil. Indigenous lands are located in a significant portion of the Brazilian Amazon and are fundamental for the physical and socio-cultural reproduction of indigenous peoples.”

Bypassing Bolsonaro

President Bolsonaro has a noted disdain for red tape and an apathy to environmental issues, potentially meaning reasonable demands for regulations and protections go ignored and there is little scope for opposition and debate through traditional channels.

“The Bolsonaro regime espouses a reckless development model based on the limitless exploitation of natural resources,” Vargas says. “It is within this context that unrestrained mining activities are being proposed in the Amazon’s indigenous lands. Yet mining policies in Brazil are veiled attempts at economic progress, shown to advance the destruction of the environment and endanger indigenous lives.”

Vargas says that the current mining model is “predatory”, and that the proposed bill to open indigenous lands to industrial exploitation equate to an attack on indigenous peoples’ right to consultation, and “means the destruction of rivers, territories, and ways of life of indigenous and forest peoples”. 

Amazon Watch and the Association of Brazil’s Indigenous Peoples sent a letter to multinational mining company Anglo American in January 2021 urging the miner to publicly commit that it will not conduct mining activities on indigenous lands in Brazil, regardless of changes to the country’s legislation. News agency InfoAmazonia reported that Anglo American had been granted 27 permits to explore indigenous lands.

An Anglo American spokesperson said that the company “has withdrawn all its applications for mineral exploration in areas located within indigenous lands, but several of these applications have not yet been removed from the database of the ANM. Some current applications for exploration may refer to areas adjacent to indigenous lands, with some of the blocks infringing upon these territories. In these cases, it is the responsibility of the ANM to demarcate these blocks outside the indigenous territories.

“As a matter of principle, Anglo American is committed to only explore indigenous lands with Free, Prior, and Informed Consent from these communities. Furthermore, Anglo American is committed to a net positive impact on biodiversity in all regions where it operates.”

With Bolsonaro unlikely to be swayed, it could be that opposition turns to campaigners putting pressure directly on mining companies to stay out of indigenous lands, regardless of Brazil’s legislative encouragement. To this end, campaigners have started raising questions around the economic credibility of Brazil’s mining aspirations; while revenues may be raised by mining more of Brazil’s natural resources, gains could be offset by financial losses incurred elsewhere through disrupting the Amazon rainforest.

“Bolsonaro’s proposed economic model is not sustainable,” Vargas says. “A recent study published by One Earth revealed that allowing mining within indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon could increase the devastating impacts this activity wrecks on the rainforest by more than 20%. It may also generate losses of up to $5bn due to changes in the Amazon ecosystem, such as the regulation of rainfall patterns, food production, and global climatic stability.”