- The Belo Sun goldmine, to be Brazil’s largest, would use cyanide and other industrial processes to produce 5 million ounces of gold over 12 years. The company´s environmental impact assessment says it will process nearly 35 million tons of rock. The open-pit mine would leave behind gigantic solid waste piles covering many hectares, plus a huge toxic waste impoundment near the Xingu River.
- A Brazilian judge suspended the project’s installation license this week, faulting the Canadian company that would be excavating Belo Sun with improperly acquiring federal land and potentially removing families from those lands to “reduce social costs.”
- The proposed Belo Sun goldmine is within a short distance of the controversial Belo Monte dam, which has dislocated residents, caused deforestation, and harmed the environment, causing major fish kills on the Xingu River, a major tributary of the Amazon River. Residents are concerned that the addition of the nation’s biggest goldmine will do more severe harm.
- Residents fear that a failure of the Belo Sun toxic waste impoundment dam would create a disaster on the Xingu River similar in scale to the Samarco Fundão dam collapse in 2015, which dumped roughly 50 million tons of toxic iron ore waste into the Doce River, polluting it for 500 miles, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and causing Brazil´s largest environmental disaster.
A Brazilian judge dealt a blow to the Belo Sun mining company’s plans to open the largest goldmine in Brazil this week. The proposed mine is slated for the Volta Grande bend of the Xingu River, very near the site of the controversial Belo Monte dam in Pará state.
The court handed down a 180-day suspension of the Canadian company’s installation license. The ruling, issued February 21st, found that Belo Sun Mineração Ltda. had made efforts to illegally obtain federal land and to dispossess the rural populations living on those lands while also preventing them from hunting and fishing.
The decision noted that while the company had not yet obtained an environmental permit for its proposed mine, it improperly purchased the land from three purported owners. Judge Álvaro José da Silva Sousa described this as “a way of removing the families from these areas and thus reducing the company’s social costs”.
The proposed Belo Sun goldmine site covers 175,000 hectares (675 square miles), would be the biggest in Brazil, and produce an estimated 5 million ounces of gold over a 12-year period. The company´s environmental impact assessment says it will process nearly 35 million tons of rock. The open pit mine would leave behind massive rock spoil piles covering many hectares, plus a huge toxic waste impoundment near the Xingu River. The company had planned to spend US $5 million on exploration this year. The court decision sent shares in Belo Sun down by 2.68 percent to $1.09 in mid-afternoon trading in Toronto on Tuesday.
The Brazilian judge concurred with an argument by the Public Defenders’ Office, noting that the proposed site of the mine has also been the focus of agrarian land reforms. He pointed out too that three years had passed between the issuance of the preliminary environmental license and the installation license, but that the area’s residents still remained in limbo regarding their land rights. Da Silva Sousa said that it is “unjustifiable” that the company has left the residents “still at the mercy of fate without knowing what their destiny is as [to when] the Volta Grande mining project [will] begin set up.”
The judge said that the firm may not undertake any activities to develop the mine site as long as the land issues remain unresolved. In early February, Brazil´s National Council on Human Rights appealed for a denial of the dam´s license.
Belo Sun responded to questions from Mongabay and said that it will appeal the decision: “Belo Sun Mineração has already signed sales contracts for properties with the occupants of the lots and/or farms relevant to the Volta Grande Project’s installation following all the necessary legal parameters and independent appraisals of the areas and their improvements.” The firm said it had prepared a plan for reallocation, negotiation and social inclusion aimed at two of the affected communities, Vila Ressaca and Vila Galo, and that it had submitted this plan to the state’s environmental agency. The company also maintained it had “a deep dialogue with these communities”, and that it would update its census and discuss relocation with residents in 2017.
The Belo Sun mining project has run into snags before. In 2014, another judge suspended the Canadian firm´s environmental license because the firm hadn´t adequately evaluated the impact the mine would have on nearby indigenous communities. The Canadian company is owned by Forbes & Manhattan, a private merchant bank. According to Forbes & Manhattan´s website, the bank focuses on “the resource-based sector, technology, telecommunications, and on-line gaming.” Social responsibility is also a priority for the bank, according to its website.
Residents living in the area targeted by the mine have already faced serious challenges brought by rapid development. Last year, the Belo Monte dam, the world’s third largest hydropower project, began operating nearby, with devastating impacts to the environment and to the fishery, affecting people who depend on the Xingu River for survival.
Jackson de Sousa Dias, 25, is a critic of the mining project and a member of the Movement of People Affected by Dams (Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens, MAB). “First of all, [the mining company is] a transnational company, it’s Canadian. So, the majority of the shareholders are Canadian banks. So, we already know where the wealth from the Amazon is going, to the Canadians,” de Sousa Dias said.
He also pointed out that IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental protection agency, is required to monitor the area around the Belo Monte dam for six years once the dam begins operating at full capacity, planned for 2019. “IBAMA has to monitor this region until 2025 because the [river’s] flow in this region has been reduced by up to 80 percent by the Belo Monte dam. So our position is that there shouldn’t be any other major projects until 2025 since we won’t know the full impact in this region [of the dam] until then.”
The Xingu River flows through the state of Pará, whose Secretariat of the Environment and Sustainability (SEMAS) granted an installation license to Belo Sun for the mine at the beginning of February. IBAMA declined to comment to Mongabay about this week’s court suspension, stating that SEMAS is handling the licensing process.
Carolina Piwowarcyzk Reis, an attorney with the Instituto Socio-Ambiental (ISA) and NGO, told Mongabay that Belo Sun´s licensing process, “has had various irregularities since the beginning, starting with the lack of prior, free and informed consultation.” This, she said, applies to the indigenous populations in the area as well as the traditional populations who rely on fishing and small-scale gold mining for a living.
The specter of Brazil´s largest environmental disaster to date, also hangs over the Belo Sun project. Environmentalists criticize the Canadian company´s plan to use a waste storage dam similar to the Fundão dam employed by Vale and BHP Billiton´s joint venture, Samarco in Minas Gerais state. The dam collapsed on November 5, 2015, dumping roughly 50 million tons of toxic iron ore waste into the Doce River and was Brazil´s largest-ever environmental disaster.
When asked about its willingness to consider other, safer storage options, a Belo Sun spokesperson told Mongabay that the Volta Grande waste dam would be smaller, with just one-third the Fundão dam´s capacity, and that “after the closure of operations, [the waste storage impoundment] offers the option with the greatest financial and technical viability.”
Gold mining requires the use of toxins to separate the gold from waste. Belo Sun has said that it will use cyanide to process the 5 million ounces of gold it expects to extract from the project. Residents and activists fear that a spill of these toxic materials would prove disastrous to the Xingu River, impacting communities already made vulnerable by deforestation and the Belo Monte dam.
Belo Sun responded to questions from Mongabay about the use of cyanide, explaining that the poisonous chemical compound is used internationally to separate valuable minerals from ore. The firm also said that every step of the production cycle will be closely monitored and that “the cyanide will be placed in adequate installations, with closed and protected tanks.”
Bel Juruna called the judge’s suspension this week “the best news I’ve had about Belo Sun yet”. Juruna lives in the village of Muratuí along with 70 members of the Juruna tribe. “We’re fighting a lot to be consulted because that is our right,” she told Mongabay. “There are going to be a lot of impacts, of cyanide and other things, and there’ll be a time when neither [Belo Sun nor Norte Energia, the Belo Monte dam’s operator] wants to take responsibility for compensation measures or for the environmental damage.”
She concluded: “We don’t want what happened with Belo Monte to happen again.”
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